Last November, the City’s Human Services Committee convened a “funding summit” to investigate whether it is possible to improve upon the way in which public funds are allocated to local social service agencies. The current manner, according to some members of the Human Services Committee, is “piecemeal.”

That may have been simply a subjective declaration to try to consolidate two disparate types of funding that are each designated for services for vulnerable areas and populations of the community: funding allocated by the City’s Mental Health Board (MHB) and by the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Committee.

Both the CDBG Committee and the Mental Health Board make recommendations about how funds should be allocated among the various agencies that submit applications. The ultimate decisions, however, rest with the City Council.

CDBG funds are federal funds passed through to the local level and allocated to agencies that serve the needs of the community in a specific geographical area – in our case most of Central and West Evanston. These funds can be used to help provide decent housing and economic opportunities and “a suitable living environment,” as examples. The CDBG Committee makes recommendations about which agencies should receive funds and what the funding amounts should be.

MHB allocations come from the City’s operating budget – the Human Services Fund, which is a subset of the General Fund, the City’s main operating budget. The MHB recommends funding amounts for many social service agencies through what is termed “community purchased services,” which helps the agencies expand the scope of what they provide to our more vulnerable residents – the elderly, the young, those with mental illness or other physical or mental challenges, as examples.

Examples of agencies that received MHB funds this year are Family Focus, the Moran Center (legal services for youth), Northwest CASA (help for victims of sexual assault) and PEER Services (for substance abuse counseling and prevention services). Last year, local agencies received an aggregate of more than $800,000. The amount of money allocated to the Human Services fund will be determined later this year.

Among the recommendations that arose from the November summit were that applications for CDBG and MHB funding and presentations in support of the applications be heard jointly by the CDBG Committee and the Mental Health Board, and that funding to an agency be limited to a certain percentage of that agency’s budget.

While MHB and the CDBG Committee provide funding to agencies that help improve the community, the missions of the two are not identical, and the criteria used to make recommendations are different. For these reasons we are wary of combining the two hearings. We also believe that the funding recommendations decisions should remain separate and should be independently made by the MHB and the CDBG Committee.

We would not want the social service funding recommendations made by the MHB to be usurped by Council members on the CDBG Committee. Nor would we like to see the fact that an agency is seeking or receiving a recommendation from the CBBG Committee be used as a reason to deny funding by MHB – or vice versa.

Moreover, we feel that limiting the recommended funds to an agency based on the size of that agency’s budget is an example of illusory efficiency. It is a quick rubric but it may not be a reliable one or one that produces optimal outcomes. Further, such a categorical limitation is not wholly compatible with the notion of outcomes-driven funding. Some agencies have larger budgets than others; some are more easily able to attract community donations or secure grants, and although those factors may influence the scope of an agency’s reach, they may have varied bearing on an agency’s need or its ability to deliver excellent services to those in need in our community.

We understand the need for efficiency in government activity, but sometimes what seems the most straightforward path may not in fact be the most desirable or reflect the best use of funds.

It has been said over and over by many agency directors over the course of many funding hearings that funding from the local government can be the imprimatur that helps an agency leverage additional funding or secure grants.

We hope that City Council members will carefully consider the repercussions of changing the way social services are funded so as not to dilute the funding or the strength of the Mental Health Board. It was one of the first municipal mental health boards in the state and was created here by referendum.

At the November meeting, Alderman Jane Grover, a past chair of the City’s Mental Health Board, reaffirmed the City’s commitment to supporting the services that benefit our vulnerable residents. She said, “We are not backing away from our commitment – it’s part of the safety net that we have committed to.”

There will be a second meeting in the next few weeks to discuss the way CDBG and Human Services Fund monies are allocated. As discussions progress, we trust the other aldermen will remember this commitment.