Wednesday, April 27, 2011

San Diego Grand jury finds value in supervisors' fund

But report recommends greater transparency in awarding of grants

By Christopher Cadelago

Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 9:19 p.m.

The fund that lets county supervisors grant public money to community groups is valuable for putting tax dollars to work, but officials could do more to increase transparency and improve the program's image, according to a report released Tuesday by the San Diego County Grand Jury.

The Neighborhood Reinvestment Program has been criticized as a "slush fund" that helps solidify incumbency for the board of supervisors.

The five supervisors say the $1 million each of them dispenses each year helps charities and causes that otherwise would not get money from the county bureaucracy.

"We found there's a lot of valuable programs that probably wouldn't get funded if it weren't for these guys," Grand Jury Foreman Richard Carlson said.

Supervisor Bill Horn, the board chairman, said he was pleased the grand jury recognized that the majority of tax dollars come from unincorporated areas.

"I believe it is important to return those tax dollars to the communities in which they are generated," Horn said. "The grand jury correctly notes that these funds are used for worthy projects such as regional parks, libraries and recreational facilities."

The investigation found that trading grants for political support was not an issue, saying there was no direct evidence of influence buying nor of any member of a supervisor's office suggesting a political favor in exchange for a grant.

However, the report states that over the years some organizations have offered opportunities for political grandstanding to the donating supervisor "and that these actions have cast a shadow over both programs."

The report also noted that numerous awards were given to supervisors by recipients of the funds, and that supervisors were frequently invited to speak to members of the groups.

The report recommended: amending grant applications to include questions on donations made in the past year to campaigns from officers and board members of the applicant organization, publishing the tax identification number of each organization that receives funding, creating an audit trail so donations for tangible items can be physically verified and drafting a self-certification process to ensure recipients are in compliance with IRS regulations.

In September, supervisors unanimously agreed to tighten restrictions for distributing the money and banned themselves from accepting gifts from recipients.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who pushed for the changes with colleague Greg Cox, said the report demonstrated that the overhaul went a long way toward cleaning up the program.

"This program has greatly helped communities, but we tightened the program rules further to ensure its original purpose of reinvesting taxpayer money into local neighborhoods for projects that benefit the public," Cox said. "It's good to see that the grand jury has recognized those efforts. We will continue to work to insure the accountability and integrity of the program, while filling vital needs in the community." (619) 293-1334

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