‘Meeting of all meetings’ to seal centers’ fates

       Will the Westside and the city's other three community centers stay open? The City Council meeting Monday, March 22 is expected to bring forth answers.
       “It's going to be the meeting of all meetings,” commented Brian Kates, director of the Westside and Meadows Park centers. “People of all ages and interests are going to be there. And they'll be back again Tuesday [March 23, when council could vote on the matter] to talk to council during citizen discussion.”
       A major intrigue for the Westside is how the city will react to the Woodmen Valley Chapel's proposal for the Westside Community Center. The church's application had been submitted in response to a request for proposals (RFP) that the city advertised in January with the expressed hope of attracting private sector entities willing to take over operations of one or more centers and “preferably” retain the kinds of services and activities offered now.
       The City Procurement Services Office, which is authorized to process RFP submittals, would reveal only that “we made a final decision yesterday and we are moving forward with that entity in establishing a contract,” agency manager Curt DeCapite said in an interview March 17. He added that a briefing would be presented to City Council March 22. “I cannot provide more detail at the moment since we don't have an executed agreement and we haven't briefed council.”
       DeCapite has actually not announced the names of any RFP submitters. The Westside Pioneer had learned about the Woodmen Valley Chapel's interest during an Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) board meeting in February, at which Dick Siever of Woodmen outlined a church plan to essentially keep the community center as is but to add programs geared to strengthening lower-income families.
       Should Woodmen's plan be approved, the Westside Center would stay open, but uncertainties remain for the three elsewhere in town (Deerfield, Hillside and Meadows). Should the Woodmen plan be rejected, the four centers together would need close to $600,000 to keep from closing after March 31, according to the city's previously presented figures. Two fundraising drives - one for West only and another for all the centers - have raised only about $10,000, Kates said.
       Sean Paige, the councilmember whose successful funding appeal to a council majority in December prevented the centers from closing then, said he is inclined to support a plan in which the needed money would be drawn from the city's reserve fund. Normally, that fund is not tapped except in emergencies, but Paige said, “I think this constitutes an emergency.”
       Kates believes that even if community supporters did not raise anywhere near the needed amount of money, the many people who've volunteered for those efforts should be counted toward a “friendraiser,” as he put it. “It's brought hundreds of people to the table who may not have strong financial means.”
       Also, he hopes that council takes into account the slimming down of the centers' budgets, from about $2.1 million in 2009 to $1.2 million this year. The cuts were largely accomplished through staff cutbacks, along with other efficiencies. As a result, where last year the ratio of costs to income for the centers was about 90 percent to 10 percent, now it's closer to 50-50, Kates said.
       As for the Woodmen Valley Chapel concept, Kates said he is aware of the church's proposal, and “what they've put together is very solid. It provides options and services for Westsiders.” But he wondered if it also might work as a “hybrid,” in which the city would retain some involvement.
       Paige emphasized that if the city does allocate money to keep the centers open for the rest of the year, it would be just a one-time thing. With the city anticipating another $30 million budget shortfall (about the same as this year's) in 2011, “there has to be a push for sustatinablity,” he said, “because I don't think the money will be there next year.”
       He expressed the hope that over the coming nine months other private entities might come forward; he said he knows of two that are leaning that way. Taking the money from reserves now “would buy us time till we can get other partners,” he said. However, “we can't just sit back those nine months and breathe a sigh of relief. We have to use that time relentlessly.”
       Asked about the Woodmen Valley Chapel idea, Paige said that in general “a partnership on the Westside would be great. I wish we could replicate that model at Hillside, Deerfield, and Meadows.”

Westside Pioneer article