THE $1 MILLION MAN
Denver Mayor Wellington Webb's Safe City Summit began last fall with a simple goal: to keep youth violence in check during the summer of 1994 by giving nonprofit agencies a cool $1 million in taxpayer-funded grants. But the summer of 1994 is more than half over. And after a series of thirteen community gatherings, exhaustive work sessions by six subcommittees, even a dramatic June 29 press conference at which the mayor unveiled the names of the grant recipients, the Summit has yet to put a penny on the streets.
The $1 million intended to provide jobs and other activities for Denver youth--and, theoretically, prevent a repeat of 1993's so-called Summer of Violence--was supposed to be allocated by May. It now appears that the cash won't actually go out the door until August at the earliest--just about the time most kids are going back to school. The Denver Citywide Marching Band, which planned to take eight inner-city kids to a band camp in the mountains, will have to front its $7,500 chunk and wait to be reimbursed, says Webb appointee and Safe City coordinator Beth McCann. The reason: The camp took place before the grant came through.
In the meantime, the city already has spent millions to create police "impact" teams, beef up staff for the county jail and county courts, fund after-school recreation programs and provide summer jobs--not to mention to enact its controversial crackdown on juvenile curfew violators. And juvenile crime does appear to be down considerably from last summer--or at least the headlines are. As for the Safe City Summit, "It's been all talk and no action," says Denver city councilman Ted Hackworth. "Then they'll claim they were successful."
Supporters of the program are, in fact, already declaring victory. The mere process of holding community meetings has contributed to a lower level of youth violence, says councilman Tim Sandos. "We've had a very good summer, and I don't think that just happened," he adds. "Over 2,500 people came to those meetings, and they went back to their PTAs, their communities and talked to friends and read newspaper articles and said, `Let's get the kids home before eleven.'"
McCann now argues that the Summit was a "year-round" process that was never intended to focus solely on summer projects. Webb press secretary Briggs Gamblin says the mayor "would have liked to have done it sooner," but "doesn't find fault with the program for not getting up and rolling sooner."
Yet the administration is behaving very much like an organization trying to play catch-up. As of last week four city employees from the budget office, the city attorney's office and the office of risk management had been pressed into service in a frantic effort to "fast track" mounds of additional paperwork that must be processed before money can be handed over. "My job is to grease the skids," says principal financial analyst Marty Flahive, who notes that Safe City recipients have to fill out the same contract documents as firms doing millions of dollars' worth of construction at Denver International Airport. "Our objective is to make this as user-friendly as we can."
However, as the city races to make the money available, critics from both inside and outside Safe City are questioning who'll be helped most by the process: Denver youth or the Denver mayor's office.
The Safe City process carried strong political overtones from the start, in large part because most of the money is being split among minority neighborhoods. "There were people in black areas that said they should have got more money, there were Hispanics who said they should have got more money and there were some Anglo neighborhoods that said, `We didn't get nothing,'" says John McBride, director of the mayor's commission on youth. "Some people call it a horse, some people say it's a jackass."
Though the city council had to approve spending for the project, Webb claimed it as his baby, naming the members of a politically liberal allocation panel and announcing their funding recommendations himself at the June 29 Civic Center Park press conference, during which he pounded on a wooden podium and proclaimed the summer of 1994 safer than its predecessor.
And the administration hasn't hesitated to take credit for the program's perceived benefits. Last week the Mayor's Commission on Arts, Culture and Film sent out a press release proudly proclaiming that more than $150,000 of the Safe City anti-crime money went to arts programs. The arts have been a pet project for First Lady Wilma Webb, who initially headed the commission and last year put a temporary moratorium on city arts spending because she believed black artists weren't getting their share of municipal projects. The third-largest Safe City grant awarded, $55,000, went to the Eulipions Youth Institute, which says it "maintains a treatment environment and atmosphere consistent with the cultural orientations of Black people."
Arts programs may be a good idea in theory, says community activist Pierre Jimenez, former president of Hispanics of Colorado. But their inordinate representation in the mayor's plan--including a $20,000 grant to the Hispanic theater troupe El Centro Su Teatro--appears to have more to do with political posturing than crime-fighting.
Some members of city council have been supportive of Webb's efforts: then-council president Dave Doering appeared alongside the mayor at the press conference to laud the process. But other councilmembers say they felt left out. "I don't know anybody on council who was involved in the whole process," says councilwoman Ramona Martinez, one of the original brainstormers of the Safe City idea. "I certainly wasn't."
That process was an excruciatingly fair one, insists Jack Hawkins of the Denver Area Labor Federation, who served on Webb's allocation panel. "We would discuss it, and discuss it and rediscuss it and then tear it apart and rediscuss it some more," Hawkins says. "But the whole idea was to reach consensus." Adds the labor leader, "For as much as I bitched about the process, it couldn't have been done any better."
Hawkins says he never felt political pressure from the mayor or council. But some groups that were turned down say they now believe they never had a chance.
"We felt people were selected before we even submitted a proposal," says Pete Roybal, whose Yes, Incorporated, puts youth, many of whom have been in trouble with the law, to work mowing lawns on HUD properties at $6 an hour. "We believe that instead of giving people money or a handout, you give them a job," he adds. Although Roybal says he endorses some Safe City grants, he questions whether, for instance, a $40,000 allotment to the Denver Public Library's after-school reading program will do much to decrease youth violence.
Such dissension doesn't bother administration officials, who are now mulling the prospect of turning the Safe City Summit into a semipermanent political bureaucracy. Though the city has continued to cite the $1 million figure when referring to the program, the actual amount being spent on services is $950,000. The other $50,000 has been set aside to pay the independent consulting firm of John Prior Associates to help the city decide which projects work and which ones don't--and, says McCann, to "provide guidance" should the city opt to repeat the program next year.
Why the city needs to pay an outside firm to evaluate one of its own programs puzzles Jimenez. "Why did we need a Safe City coordinator anyway?" he asks, accusing the administration of allowing politics to sidetrack the program's original goal of reducing crime. If the Summit process is retained, notes Hackworth, it would provide work for McCann, whose $82,000-a-year job didn't exist until Webb created it last year, after moving TV newsman Butch Montoya into McCann's old job as manager of public safety. The total budget allocation for Safe City staff salaries is now $104,100.
Webb is still weighing whether to ask council for additional funding when he submits his new budget on September 15, Gamblin says, denying that political considerations will play a part in the mayor's decision. But Webb may find it hard to resist the idea of having an annual source of cash for political fence-mending in the minority community.
Whether or not the program returns next year, critics say pressure to spread the money around has led Safe City to reinvent the social services wheel, creating another circle of grant writers and selection committees likely to merely replicate services that are already being provided. "Why not target money to stuff that's already working?" asks councilwoman Mary DeGroot.
The Denver area doesn't lack for youth programs, notes DeGroot. A recent study conducted by the Denver Regional Council of Governments identified 99 youth programs in the area dealing with jobs, intervention and recreational opportunities. McBride's commission keeps on hand at its office a free directory of Denver-based programs that deal with youth violence; at last count there were 60. And this year the City of Denver provided 1,700 summer jobs to youth, mainly through the Mayor's Office of Training and Employment.
Current council president Debbie Ortega had hoped the Safe City process would reward innovative neighborhood-level efforts. Instead, many city agencies and long-established nonprofits were rewarded with grant money. The city's use of a six-page application favored large organizations skilled at the art of grant-writing, Ortega says. When the state recently handed out $3.6 million in similar grants made possible by Senate Bill 94, it got by with a three-page form. Notes the councilwoman, "It basically said, `Tell us who you are and what you're planning to do.'"
And the 37 grant recipients that aren't either city agencies or employees of the Denver Public Schools (those groups get an exemption) still face a daunting stack of paperwork. Regulations require that they get workers' compensation coverage, liability insurance and, per an executive order issued by Webb, provide detailed information on the racial and sexual "demography" of their organizations.
More than 250 organizations or individuals applied for Safe City grants. Among the 47 finalists selected for funding, four are sponsored by city agencies such as the library and the Denver Fire Department. One $2,940 grant will go directly through McBride's office to help fund the mayor's monthly newsletter for the city's Neighborhood Watch block captains--an expenditure Martinez labels "a waste of money." Responds McBride, "Some council people have parochial neighborhood strategies. The mayor has a citywide strategy."
Programs planned at the Denver Public Schools were also a big winner. About $125,000 in grants will be funneled to DPS activities ranging from "violence-prevention sessions" for K-2 students at Asbury Elementary to "conflict-resolution" classes for parents, teachers and students at Columbine and University Park Elementary. At Rishel Middle School, movie tickets and roller-skating passes will be handed out as an incentive for parents to come to school with their children. DPS psychologist Vicki Tomlin received $8,000 for a four-year-old program called "A Place for Mentoring," which pairs middle school "mentees" with high-school-age mentors who are trained in "reflective listening" and "empathy skills."
The money in Tomlin's grant will go to pay for transporting the middle school students to the mentors' high schools once a week for eighteen weeks, and to buy lunch so that the students "can talk and eat at the same time," says Tomlin. Some of the money may also go to pay for hourly workers to help conduct evaluations of the program, notes Tomlin, who says she has collected empirical data that shows most of her mentees post significant gains in grade-point average and classroom behavior.
Mentoring programs and "conflict-resolution" training for kindergarteners may not have as direct an effect on youth violence as hiring troubled kids to mow lawns, acknowledges Gamblin. But he says Webb's dedication to "long-term policy development" has convinced the mayor that funding such programs is important. "Most people agree that the seeds of a thirteen-or fourteen-year-old are planted when they're very young," says Gamblin. "If we aren't intervening at that level, then we really are just fighting a numbers game."
Jimenez, however, argues that Webb and his allocation panel appeared to have a soft spot for socially ambitious programs whose impact on juvenile violence may be difficult, if not impossible, to measure--in part, he suggests, because liberal academics and social workers are a natural part of the mayor's constituency. "To me it's where the rubber meets the road, and if it's not dealing directly with kids, it's probably not going to have much of an impact," he says.
And much of the Safe City money will take a circuitous path before it reaches actual youth. Take, for instance, one of the largest grants in the program, a $30,000 allotment to a group called the Parent/Professional Partnership Institute. The Institute actually isn't an institute at all, but a program administered by the Center for Human Investment Policy, an agency housed at the University of Colorado-Denver's graduate school for public affairs but funded solely through grants and contracts. The Center won't use the money for children's programs, but will instead provide classes for teachers and professional staff at four to six Denver public schools.
Teachers will receive "intensive on-site work on communication skills, conflict resolution and understanding family needs and strengths," and parents also will get training in "leadership and advocacy skills," says grant writer Mimi Howard. Most of the money, she says, will pay the salaries of the two people who will work with teachers and parents: herself and a "parent educator" currently working part-time at the Center for Human Investment Policy. "The $30,000 isn't going into a program where children necessarily walk through the doors and it's a program where they're involved," Howard says. But "what they are getting hopefully are some parents who've developed some skills and understanding."
Jimenez, however, isn't impressed. The money would be better spent paying kids $6 an hour to mow lawns in Roybal's program than "giving someone $30,000 to teach teachers how to talk to parents," he suggests.
In another instance, the allocation panel recommended--and the mayor approved--giving $16,500 to the Colorado Children's Campaign to hold five "informational picnics" for young mothers in minority neighborhoods. The group plans to use the money for paying staff salaries, designing and printing a promotional poster, renting sites and other organizational costs, says project coordinator Carol Hunt. The grant also will subsidize stipends for "community enablers"--people who will be paid to round up mothers and children interested in attending the events. Once there, says Hunt, mothers will be given an information sheet outlining the location of the local school and health clinic and will participate in "fun activities" such as constructing a cardboard doll meant to symbolize their dedication to their child.
The largest grant, $140,000, went to a group called Street Smarts for Success, which wants to create what it calls an "incubator for youth-run businesses." Part of the money will help place young people in jobs with private-sector businesses, says spokesman Harry Boettcher, who notes that he doesn't have time to provide details since he's busy filling out forms to comply with city contract requirements. Boettcher says most of the money will pay for seminars, training materials and "incubator" materials designed to help at-risk youth "write a business plan."
Martinez cites a $32,000 grant to the group Listening Post, Inc., as another well-meaning effort that may wind up spending most of the money on administrative costs. According to Mary Osgood, Listening Post's director of public school relations, the fifteen-year-old program puts volunteer retirees at tables in school cafeterias, where they are available to engage children in lunchtime conversations. The retirees work for free, and the peanuts and apples served at the tables are usually donated by schools, so most of the money will go to pay the hourly wages of part-time contract workers who help run the program by giving speeches to teachers and "training" listeners. Among the lessons listeners need to learn, Osgood says, is that children don't only need someone to talk to when they're feeling bad. "If something really good happens to you, it's great to be able to share it with someone," she says. "For instance, I was excited to get this $32,000 grant."
If fighting crime was the chief goal of the Safe City Summit, public relations was always a close second. Following last summer's wave of high-profile shootings, says McBride, "folks were scared and didn't know what kinds of things to do." The Summit process allowed Webb and his subcommittees to go into neighborhoods where they "got everybody's input," he notes. "The mayor should be applauded for that."
Perhaps not surprisingly, in-house public relations efforts also appear as a key component in several Safe City grants. The nonprofit group Denver Partners intends to use most of its $15,000 grant to pay the salary of a half-time "volunteer recruitment specialist." That person, says spokeswoman Mary Ann Burdick, will prepare public-service announcements looking for adults willing to volunteer for its youth-mentoring program. The job would include contacting media outlets and then following up to see that the spots receive play, she says. The organization hopes the publicity campaign will reduce a waiting list of eighty children who have yet to be paired with a partner.
Another PR campaign is planned by the Southwest Improvement Council, which plans to use the majority of its $20,435 grant to pay the salary of a staffer who will create an informational brochure and then go door to door "promoting programs" at the Westwood Community Center. One neighborhood resident who asked not to be identified says the project is ludicrous, since people who live near the center on South Lowell Boulevard "already know what's there." Project director Jan Belle, who applied for the grant, was unavailable for comment last week.
Belle's group isn't the only one that intends to use taxpayer money to publicize existing services. One grant that draws fire from Councilwoman Martinez is an $8,000 allotment to the Center for the People of Capitol Hill, a nonprofit family resource center funded by grants from the state. The money will go to help pay for a neighborhood "resource directory"--in essence, a phone book listing the location and phone numbers of public and private schools, child-care facilities, health-care providers and services for the elderly. According to spokeswoman Jane Hartman, the guide also will include a foldout map showing bus routes and bike trails, along with directions to and descriptions of cultural facilities such as the Denver Zoo and the Denver Botanic Gardens.
Martinez says she understands why the Capitol Hill project was funded: among the numerous recommendations made by citizens during the city's series of community meetings was that youth be provided with information about available services. But she fails to see a direct "youth component" in the Capitol Hill guide--which will cost far more than a $2,000 directory Martinez put together for her own council district last November. Hartman, however, notes that the guide will include information about "infant and toddler services," along with traditional services for teenagers.
Hartman adds that her group's effort will help make Capitol Hill a "family-friendly environment," in part by sponsoring a children's drawing contest to illustrate the directory's cover.
One grant that nearly everybody appears to approve of is also one of the smallest: a $3,000 stipend to Norman J. Martin, a Littleton man who wants to take fatherless boys on camping trips. "I think that's great," says Martinez, who thinks Martin is a perfect example of the grassroots efforts she'd hoped to see more of. Simple programs with low overhead are always preferable to institutions because they "don't get caught up in bureaucracy," notes Councilman Sandos. "They remove all the bullshit and go after how they can help the kid."
The 52-year-old Martin is looking forward to helping more boys--from both Denver and Littleton, he says, adding that he's surprised that the city selected an out-of-town applicant for funding. But before he can get started, he'll have to complete his city paperwork. And when he finally gets the grant, he already knows what he'll do first with the money: buy the liability insurance and workers' compensation coverage required by the city's contracting process.
Meanwhile, back in the budget office, Flahive says he's working as fast as he can to help grant applicants find shortcuts through the red tape. Gamblin says the administration didn't expect the bureaucratic delays and hopes to avoid them if the program returns next year.
But as the summer continues to slip past, the Safe City process remains anything but streamlined. As of last week, the administration was still refusing to provide Westword with copies of the Safe City grant applications, which among other things detail precisely where the money will be spent. According to Beth McCann, the city couldn't release proposals from such agencies as the YWCA and the Denver Victims Service Center without first subjecting them to an extensive legal review by lawyers inside the city attorney's office. After all, they might contain "trade secrets.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.