the Beacon Journal editorial board

In a city that talks about its commitment to revitalizing neighborhoods and attracting new residents, encountering severe difficulty giving away money for small-scale, community-oriented projects would seem a most unlikely possibility. Yet thatís what is happening to the My Neighborhood Our Akron grant program, started in 2015. In its first two years, the program has left far more money on the table than has flowed to block clubs, neighborhood-based organizations and faith-based partnerships.

As this yearís grant period approaches, the priority must be to re-examine the program to find ways to get the small grants ($250 to $1,000) into the hands of groups that can make a positive impact on their neighborhoods.

As reported last week by Doug Livingston, a Beacon Journal staff writer, just $10,635 from a $100,000 allocation for 2016 was spent, despite a time extension. Things werenít much better in 2015, either, when $14,577 was spent from a $50,000 allocation.

While some growing pains are to be expected, a low level of grant applications, combined with a stiff rejection rate of more than half, have left a trickle of money flowing. That means looking for ways to remove obstacles that have worked against funds making a difference at the neighborhood level.

Part of the problem is spreading the word. John Valle, the director of the city Department of Neighborhood Assistance, which administers the program, makes regular visits to community centers. Thatís a start, but members of the City Council could lend a hand by more fully explaining the program to their constituents.

Meanwhile, Russ Neal, the Ward 4 councilman, continues to urge that council members have the final say on grant applications, based on knowledge of their own ward. That question came up when the program was formed, and the decision-making authority was placed in the hands of a committee that includes representatives from Valleís department, Keep Akron Beautiful and City Council members, including Neal, Ward 7ís Donnie Kammer and Ward 8ís Marilyn Keith.

The committee structure gives members of the City Council plenty of input, while protecting the program from becoming a giveaway. Whatís more important, besides public awareness, is figuring out where the roadblocks are, especially for small, informal groups of residents.

As it is, groups must have an Employer Identification Number from the Internal Revenue Service or affiliate with a nonprofit that has one, come up with matching funds (either money or sweat equity, secured before the project begins) and complete an application that explains the project in detail and how it would benefit the neighborhood.

Guidelines favor neighborhood beautification projects and improvements, community gardens, playground beautification and community center improvements. Among the grounds for rejections are proposals that would give city money to for-profit projects, fundraisers and festivals and picnics.

Whatís troubling now is a process so daunting that it is defeating the purpose of the program, as well as clashing with the cityís new emphasis on many small-scale projects that tap the initiative of citizens. It is time to look at streamlining the selection process and expanding the range of eligible projects.