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The Bell Tolls for Berkeley Nonprofits By MATTHEW ARTZ

Monday January 03, 2005

In Berkeley, a new year will mean the clock has struck midnight for more than a dozen community agencies dependent on city funds. 

“There just isn’t any money to fund them,” said Berkeley’s Assistant City Manger Arrietta Chakos .  

When the City Council passed a budget last June that closed a $10.3 million dollar deficit, it extended six months of funding to local nonprofits—a total of $261,234—with the warning that funding would not be renewed unless voters passed a series of tax hikes. 

But in November, voters soundly defeated the tax measures, sending the agencies scurrying, often unsuccessfully, for other sources of cash. 

Among the programs hardest hit are a jobs and afterschool program run by Berkeley Youth Alternatives, an evening escort service for BART passengers run by the Berkeley Boosters, a low-income outreach program for the Habitot Children’s Museum, Housing Rights Inc., and a program to promote nutrition in low income areas run by Berkeley’s Ecology Center. 

In all, 14 community groups and programs will lose city funding from January through June. The groups already suffered cuts of 3 percent this year on top of cuts in the previous two years. Since 2002, the city has cut $16.3 million from its general fund. With a $7.5 million deficit looming next year, restored city funding for the nonprofits is in doubt when the next financial year begins in July. 

“Right now, we’re doing all we can to weather the storm,” said David Manson, executive director of the Berkeley Boosters, a service organization aligned with the Berkeley Police Department since 1995. The cuts will cost the Boosters’ Berkeley BART Escort program $19,643—roughly half the budget for the program that places high school aged youth at Berkeley BART stations to escort passengers home at night. 

In response to the cut, Manson this year hired eight escorts instead of the usual 12 and ended the program in December instead of March. 

The future of the escorts, and the Booster’s Berkeley Guides program, which hires youth to serve as ambassadors along Berkeley’s downtown, remains uncertain. Both are entirely funded by the city, and the current plan to close next year’s budget deficit includes eliminating both programs from the police department’s budget. 

“We’re trying to find private funding, but it’s proving pretty fruitless,” Manson said. After attempts to win grants from the Department of Homeland Security failed, Manson is pinning his hopes next year that the city will fund the program through its Office of Economic Development, which has more available money than the Police Department. 

Other cities, including Sacramento and Portland, fund similar programs through local businesses, but Manson said the local merchant association’s charter only allows it to pay for marketing and promotion. 

Habitot, a private children’s museum in downtown Berkeley, will lose $13,580—half of its annual funding—for a program that last year paid for 2,130 visits by low-income families. City funding accounts for about 2 percent of Habitot’s budget, all of which goes to the outreach program that offers free visits and memberships to qualifying families, said Gina Moreland, the museum’s executive director. She expected the cuts would mean at least 1,000 fewer museum visits in the first half of 2005.  

Berkeley Youth Alternatives, a service organization for underprivileged children and their families, will lose $34,000 in city funding over the next six months that had been earmarked for the organization’s afterschool program, youth jobs program and twilight basketball league. A donation from the Partnership Foundation has spared the basketball program through the spring, said BYA Executive Director Nikki Williams, but the afterschool program will have to close its doors to kindergarteners. The jobs program, which last year found work for 20 teenagers, will be scaled back as well, she said. 

Williams said BYA, which counts on the city for about 15 percent of its funding, could survive this round of cuts, but that additional cuts expected next year could eliminate services altogether. “That’s when it’s going to be really tough,” she said.