City not likely to forgive $100,000 BYA loan
About 100 young people turned out Friday night at a fundraiser for the fledgling teen center at Berkeley Youth Alternatives, a non-profit child services agency in West Berkeley.
The event came three days after BYA officials appeared before the City Council and requested forgiveness on a seven year-old, $100,000 loan from the city.
Niculia Williams, BYA executive director, said fundraisers, like Friday’s event, help to keep the agency’s roughly 35 programs afloat. Diverting money to loan repayment, she said, could lead to the collapse of some of the organization’s services for at-risk youth.
But some members of City Council have concerns about forgiving a loan of substantial size, particularly during a time of recession. They also raise questions of fairness. The city has provided loans to other non-profits, they say, so it would be difficult to justify forgiving a loan for one organization, and not the others.
“It’s a wonderful program,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “It’s not a question of do people like the program. It’s a question of fairness.”
BYA, which serves mostly Berkeley youth, received the loan in 1994 to help convert an old bread factory at 2141 Bonar St. into a youth center, and to retrofit the building to protect against earthquake damage. The loan came on top of a $1 million state grant, and a $267,000 Community Development Block Grant from the city.
The organization intended to repay the loan by renting storage space in an adjacent building to the city. But, in July 1995, the adjacent facility burned down, eliminating the storage space and causing extensive smoke and water damage at the youth center.
The city has repeatedly extended repayment of the loan since the fire, and on Tuesday, the City Council voted to extend the loan again until the city manager’s office makes a recommendation on loan forgiveness.
Phil Kamlarz, deputy city manager, said a recommendation will probably not be forthcoming until June, when the council votes on the budget for the next fiscal year. He did, however, say he has concerns about bailing out BYA in a time of recession.
“If things were rosy and there was a lot of money out there, it’s an easier decision to make,” he said. “But things aren’t rosy.”
Still, Williams said there are compelling reasons to forgive the loan. “We like to think we’re doing the city of Berkeley a great service,” she said, noting that BYA provides Berkeley youth with an extensive range of services, from mentoring, to basketball leagues, to employment, in an area of town where there is little in the way of city services.
The city currently funds about 22 percent of BYA’s budget, she said. It would cost the municipality far more to provide extensive youth services in the area on its own.
Williams also argued that, with the recent economic downturn, fundraising has become more difficult for the organization, making the loan a greater burden then ever. BYA recently had to cut a program for the first time since Williams took the helm as executive director in 1990, she said. The program trained young people in floral arrangement and the flower business.
Williams’s argument resonates with Mayor Shirley Dean. Dean said she understands concerns about the city budget, and added that the council must be cautious about setting a precedent on loan forgiveness. But, she said the city would lose vital services if it did not bail out BYA.
“They would have to cut programs,” she said, “and what do we want them to cut?”
Friday night’s fundraiser, which took place at The Black Box Gallery and Theater in Oakland, was a talent showcase, featuring hip-hop DJs and rappers trained through BYA’s teen center. Local rappers Natural Blackness and Blu Collar also performed.
Matthew Chandler, teen center coordinator, signed on with BYA in October 2000, and began asking young people what they envisioned for the program. In the next several months, he acquired a range of musical equipment through donations and BYA funding, and launched the teen center in January 2001.
Today, the facility serves about 50 young people, providing DJ training, music and video production classes, a tutoring program, and a college advisory program. “I think it’s good because it gets kids off the streets,” said Herman White, 16, a Berkeley High School student who takes DJ classes at the teen center.
Dominika Anderson, another BYA regular, said that events like the Friday night fundraiser, which took in several hundred dollars, provide young people with an important alternative. “Everyone wants to party on Friday night,” she said. “This gives us a safer environment.”
“There’s not a whole lot, if anything at all, for teens to do on the weekend,” added Chandler. “We wanted to provide something for them to do to use the skills they’ve been learning…This is something they’ve been asking for.”
But turntables and rap lyrics were not the only topic of discussion at the event. Julian Fernandez, 16, of Oakland, who is employed by BYA to educate young children about nutrition, made a plug for loan forgiveness. “If they try to pay that back,” he said, “it’s just going to collapse the whole BYA, because it’s taking money out of our programs.”
The teen center will host another, similar fundraiser on Feb. 22 at Black Box.