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Less food, more innovation for neighborhood grants program

Palo Alto's Know Your Neighbors grant program should focus less on subsidizing block parties and food and more on new ideas and inclusion of more neighborhoods next year, the Parks and Recreation Commission told city staff on Tuesday evening.

Commissioners were uniformly pleased with the 2013 program. But they agreed with staff that financing food purchases, some of which were a bit extravagant, should be reined in.

The City Council approved a $25,000 expenditure for 2013 to finance small neighborhood events that build community and encourage relationships, especially among new neighbors. The program launched on April 11, approving 39 grants up to $1,000 each. Of those, 22 events took place, ranging from a big-screen movie night to a multicultural barbecue and yoga day in a park.

About 3,175 people participated, and the city spent $19,378.28, or $6.10 per person, Recreation Supervisor Khashayar Alaee said.

"This is very exciting, and I think it's money well spent," Commissioner Keith Reckdahl said.

Staff recommended the 2014 grants budget remain at $25,000. But Chairman Ed Lauing said he had no problem with increasing the budget to $30,000.

Some neighborhoods submitted proposals after the allocation deadline, and staff plans to increase advertising and public outreach.

Some changes in 2014 could leave past recipients without funding this year. Commissioners said they want more, under-represented neighborhoods and different people to take part. Events such as block parties, which neighborhoods have routinely funded on their own, might be put on a second-tier for funding, they suggested.

More than 50 percent of the funded proposals in 2013 were for events the neighborhoods had done previously, Alaee said.

"I think you have to be careful about funding repeats," said Vice Chairwoman Jennifer Hetterly said.

Only 27 percent were"new and innovative ideas," which was a program goal, Alaee said.

Those events should create a "structure" so that residents are "given something to go forward with," beyond a single-day event, Crommie said.

"It's a model used in the Girls Scouts. There's a life beyond the project that continues on," she said.

Commissioners were concerned about funding give-away items. Granting $1,000 for an emergency-preparedness event that distributed emergency-supply backpacks to 25 people was considered "a little unsustainable" by Commissioner Deirdre Crommie.

Hetterly agreed. An event that helps people build emergency kits might be more appropriate "as opposed to handing over a backpack," she said.

Grants for food might also be capped next year.

"We did see significant amounts spent on food. In some cases on very good food," Alaee said.

Grant recipients also would not be reimbursed for expenses that were comingled with personal purchases, Alaee said. That practice created a significant administrative burden to go through line by line.

The 2013 program met three goals by 100 percent. It increased communication, enhanced pride and identity within neighborhoods and included multiple generations and cultures. But commissioners suggested that staff create a map on which they would plot which neighborhoods receive grants. In that way, they could better gauge which neighborhoods are under-represented, they said.

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