This story was originally published on Nov. 7, 2013.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – If you need a $1,000 grant from the city of Providence, all you have to do is ask, according to City Council President Michael Solomon.
In fact, it’s the only way.
The availability of these city grants isn’t advertised, and there is no application process. Those who receive the grants aren’t required to submit receipts and aren’t subject to any council oversight. The list of those who’ve received the grants has never been published. In fact, only two people can cut you the check for one of the grants – and they happen to be among the most powerful people in the city.
- PDF: Council president’s contingency account
- PDF: Finance chairman’s contingency account
- PDF: Mayor’s contingency account
All told, the City Council has quietly spent $239,286 in taxpayer funds on grants to nonprofit organizations, food tabs and other discretionary expenses since the start of the 2006-07 fiscal year using two “contingency” accounts buried deep within the city budget, according to a two-month WPRI.com review of documents obtained through multiple public records requests.
“If there’s a request and it’s a reasonable request for something specific, neighborhood-oriented, we’re going to honor that request,” Solomon told WPRI.com.
The accounts, controlled by the council president – Solomon since 2011 – and the Finance Committee chairman – Councilman John Igliozzi since 2007 – function similarly to the General Assembly’s $2-million legislative grant program, sprinkling small donations across the city to local sports programs, community centers and festivals while paying for awards ceremonies and other “special occasions,” according to Solomon.
A separate contingency account is controlled by the mayor’s office.
Solomon, who is running for mayor in 2014, said the funds are distributed to organizations that “do good things in our community” and are spread evenly across the city’s 15 wards. But a WPRI.com review of the expenditures shows that because there is no application, the same handful of organizations tend to reap the benefits of the obscure accounts every year.
In one case, that means the dollars flow directly to a nonprofit track-and-field club team founded by the City Council’s longest-serving member: Kevin Jackson, who was chairman of the Finance Committee from 1999 to 2007.
Jackson, who has represented the Mount Hope neighborhood on the city’s East Side since 1995, started the Providence Cobras youth track-and-field team in 1978. The team has trained an Olympian, several all-Americans and dozens of all-state athletes over the last 35 years, subsidizing trips to events across the country and even in Ukraine, according to Jackson.
A large chunk of that financial support has come from the City Council.
Since 2006, the Providence Cobras has received $23,000 in council grants – by far the most money any organization in the city has been awarded during that time span. In fact, the Cobras have been given more money than all of the youth sports programs in the city combined: records show 10 other sports organizations received just $13,900 during the same period.
Jackson said he never used his position on the council to secure more money for the team, but acknowledged that organizations who have relationships with a neighborhood council member may benefit over organizations that do not have that connection.
“There’s different social service agencies that are connected to each and every council person – if it’s not athletics, it’s arts or cultural type of things,” Jackson told WPRI.com. “I don’t think any council person in any city or town goes free of having connections to those groups.”
Jackson said he doesn’t believe grants to his organization present a conflict of interest.
“No, because it’s not going directly to me,” Jackson said. “All of that goes directly to the children that are involved in the program. I would say over the years it has saved over 1,000 children in the city of Providence.”
Common Cause: You shouldn’t have to know a politician
But the advantage held by organizations that have relationships with elected officials versus those who operate outside of the political sphere calls into question the integrity of the entire program, according to John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a good-government advocacy group.
Marion said most of the $239,286 appeared to have been distributed to deserving nonprofits, but groups that don’t know about the program “literally can’t compete” for the money because there is no formal application process.
“These are taxpayers’ monies and any group in the city should have equal chance to get one of these,” Marion told WPRI.com. “You shouldn’t have to know a politician in the city of Providence on the City Council.”
What happens once the organizations receive the money is unclear because the council does not require a copy of receipts to be submitted and has never audited a single nonprofit. By comparison, the General Assembly’s legislative grant process requires an application by both the political sponsor and the organization as well as the submission of receipts after the money is spent, according to House spokesman Larry Berman.
On the state level, the organizations are also subject to random audits and have had their funding pulled for failure to report their expenses, Berman said. The General Assembly also publishes the name of every single recipient on its website.
Solomon said the anecdotal results prove the money is being utilized correctly, but Marion said detailed reports should be required.
“A grant program done well, you have to report on your deliveries,” Marion said. “You have to report on impacts of the grant.”
Little oversight over program
The lack of oversight over the two accounts goes beyond the grant recipients. In fact, until WPRI.com began requesting information about the two accounts, few city employees had ever reviewed council spending at all.
Included in the expenses was $1,825 in lawyer’s fees that were misclassified as well as thousands of dollars in restaurant and bakery tabs, including a $480 payment to a pub on Smith Street in 2008. In 2011, the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association, also in Jackson’s ward, was approved for separate $2,500 grants on the same day, but they came out of different accounts.
But Solomon dismissed the idea that any misspending has occurred under his watch. He said the vast majority of the funds are distributed to organizations that “depend on this money,” often because they’ve faced cuts from other sources such as the federal Community Development Block Grant.
“They’re relying on this money to get their projects done,” Solomon said. “The projects are obviously getting done. If you look at the dollar amounts on a lot of them, you’re seeing the work that’s being done.”
Officials in other major Rhode Island cities and towns – including Warwick, Cranston, Pawtucket, Johnston and East Providence – all said they do not operate similar contingency accounts, but Providence Mayor Angel Taveras does maintain his own account. On the state level, the governor’s office has its own contingency account.
Taveras’s account is larger than the council’s – approximately $100,000 annually – but it is not used exclusively for grants to organizations. The mayor’s office also pays its federal lobbyist, its monthly downtown parking lot bill and other consultants through the contingency account.
Like the council, the mayor does use his account to provide grants to various community organizations and festivals, but Taveras said he is willing to consider publishing all of the recipients online.
“Certainly I think the public has a right to know and I’m glad that you are providing that,” Taveras told WPRI.com. “And we certainly will find ways to be more transparent about it.”
Councilman: Applications, audits needed
The council is considering changes as well.
City Councilman David Salvatore, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, said that while he supports the work many of the recipients have done, grant applications should be required to “meet the goals and objectives of the respective programs.”
Salvatore said he will push the council to consider “employing a transparency portal that provides the public with grant receipts and disbursement balances, so that tax dollars are being spent as effectively and efficiently as possible.”
He said it’s also time to start reviewing how the money is spent once it’s awarded.
“Oversight vis-a-vis auditing of how grant dollars are spent after they are awarded is a critical measurement of accountability,” Salvatore said.
Disclosure: WPRI.com reporter Dan McGowan is a volunteer coach at a Providence little league that received a $1,000 grant. He played no role in securing the funds.