While the budgeting and spending actions of the D.C. Council receive a great deal of media attention, little is known about the fiscal activities of the political bodies that are closer to the residents of the District but in many ways equally as important.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissions are the elected, unpaid body of government officials who consider a number of policies and programs that affect neighborhoods in such areas as economic development and public safety. These commissions dole out hundreds of thousands of dollars – in the form of grants – each year to nonprofits and community organizations in their commission areas.
"We cannot give money to 'fly by night' operations or just anybody," said Robert King, a Ward 5 resident who is the longest-serving commissioner and elected official in the District.
"Carnivals, parades and street festivals cannot be supported. We are supposed to give money to improve the neighborhood and the quality of life for our residents."
King, 64, said that "the grants must have a public good."
Commissions receive their money as an appropriation from the D.C. Council. Each commission receives about the same amount of money and it's based on a formula that comes out to around $1.40 per resident, said Simon Gottlieb, the executive director of the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners.
There is a widespread misconception that there's more money available to commissions in wealthier parts of the city as opposed to commissions located in low-income areas. Not true, Gottlieb said.
"Ward 3 has no more money than Ward 8 [in regards to the allocation]," he said. "The money is distributed on a per capita basis. One-eighth of the city's population gets one-eighth of the money."
King said that the present system of funding is better than the previous one.
"ANCs used to get city funds based on the value of the property – where it was located," he said. "In 1983, that changed with the passage of the ANC Threshold Act which based money on a set formula based on population."
The complaint, King said, about the old system was commissions in wealthier areas of the city received more money than in poorer areas, especially in Wards 7 and 8, because their property was assessed at a higher level.
Vicki Wright-Smith, a commissioner for 1A02, said that when she was elected to her post in 2010, she attended an orientation session on what her duties entailed and that included a section on finances.
"We were told that we had a budget and that we give out grants and what was permissible to give out as far as money is concerned," Wright-Smith, 46, said.
Wright-Smith, who lives in Columbia Heights in Northwest, said that in her commission 1A, grants are given to organizations within the boundaries of the commission. She said the number of grants per commissioner varies.
"I have only given out one or two a year from my single-member district," she said. "Some of my colleagues have given away as [many] as six or seven in their districts alone."
During the orientation, Wright-Smith learned that grants are supposed to go to organizations that are using them for the good of the community. She said that it was made clear in the orientation that grants should not be used to pay the rent of constituents or for small personal loans.
"We do not help people in that way and I have never gotten that type of request from a constituent," she said.
If a resident needs financial assistance, they would have to contact their D.C. Council member, Gottlieb said. The constituent service fund that each member has is supposed to aid residents in times of need, he said.
The process of getting money from an ANC varies depending on the commission's individual polices, but they do have standard practices.
Wright-Smith said that the first step in obtaining a grant from a commission is to contact a commissioner.
"The commissioner will give you a grant application or you can download it from the ANC's website," she said. "When the application is completed, it is presented to the commissioner who will present your application to the commission at what is known as a pre-meeting. At the pre-meeting, a decision is made on whether to present it [during] the public meeting."
Wright-Smith said that at the public meeting, a motion is made to approve or deny the request. If approved, a check will be issued, she said.
The process is the same at others with a few minor differences.
"If someone wants a grant, they can go to our website," said Villareal Johnson, an outgoing commissioner in Ward 7. "They can fill out the form on the website and they will be contacted and invited to the public session where the ANC approves or disapproves."
Johnson, 34, said that the commission does not pay the grantee directly but makes the check payable to the vendor. For example, if a grantee is seeking to plant a community garden, the commission will make the check or checks payable to companies or firms supplying materials and tools for the garden.
Wright-Smith said grants given by the commission must be verified on how they were spent.
"Whoever gets money from us must have their receipts and report of what they did with the money, which will be handed over to the auditor," she said.
The Office of the D.C. Auditor regularly monitors the spending activities of the commissions and investigates when there are issues on how the money is spent. The commissions' fiscal year begins on Oct. 1.
Commissions have different signatory practices in terms of who can authorize money to be disbursed or spent on ANC activities. In Wright-Smith's commission, it's the treasurer who handles financial matters primarily while King's commission's financial affairs are handled by the chairman and the treasurer of the commission and must have a D.C. government insignia.
To get money from Johnson's commission, there must be signatures from a leader such as the chairman or secretary and a commissioner. Johnson said that he makes sure that the process of giving out grants goes smoothly.
"I do not want to go to jail over misusing ANC money," he said.
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