A little more daylight could have improved the just-completed Vision Fund process. For close observers, this must be the most-common refrain: Where did that come from?
To recap: Last June, city voters approved spending $130 million — or half of the Vision Fund sales tax dollars expected be collected over the next 30 years — on a new arena. In August, the city opened the process to distribute the remaining Vision Fund taxes expected to be collected over the next three years — roughly $6 million per year or $18 million. That was later revised to $19 million.
On Jan. 31, the Rapid City Council awarded between $22 million and $24 million in Vision Fund dollars to 14 community projects and three city-led projects. The extra $3 million to $5 million in Vision Fund dollars appeared seemingly out of nowhere. It wasn’t on the public’s radar until the council opted that same night to claw back money previously earmarked for other projects but not spent. And we’re just getting started.
In October, the city announced that 24 community applicants had requested nearly $29 million from the expected pot of $19 million. The requests were forwarded to a citizen-led Vision Fund Committee, which ultimately recommended spending $16.6 million on 15 projects — not all requests received recommendations of full funding.
On Jan. 31, the council instead awarded $17.5 million to just 14 community projects, then gave a hard $2 million to two city-led projects and earmarked an additional $2.5 million to $4.5 million for a third city project — reaching the total disbursement of $22 million to $24 million.
The three city-led projects followed a path that was nearly as secretive as that last-minute Vision Fund spike of $3 million to $5 million.
On Aug. 1, Alderman Jason Salamun said he would seek direction from the Mayor’s Office about whether city-led projects would be reviewed by the citizen-led Vision Fund Committee or considered separately. Somewhere it was decided the committee would not review city-led projects.
On Jan. 17, Mayor Steve Allender announced he would seek re-election and posted goals on his website, including some that later were identified as city-led projects competing for Vision Fund dollars. Allender later mentioned these projects in a Journal story published on Jan. 27. On the morning of Jan. 31 — the same day as the awards were decided — Allender made public a memo outlining the three city projects — valued at between $4.5 million and $6.5 million. They were: $1.6 million to make Dinosaur Park ADA-complaint, $390,857 to complete the first phase of a military appreciation park, and between $2.5 million and $4.5 million to renovate City Hall.
So in the course of one night on Jan. 31, the council added as much as $5 million to the total funding available, approved 17 projects — including three that the public knew next to nothing about — and dropped one recommended project into the waste bin. It was hard to follow.
The process was so slam-bam, the council needed to revise its plan almost immediately.
On March 19 — after forgoing a committee hearing on the matter because of a blizzard (What was the rush?) — the council added $1.1 million to the $3.9 million originally earmarked for OneHeart, a downtown homeless resource center. That brought OneHeart’s funding to the $5 million supporters had originally requested.
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That additional $1.1 million for OneHeart was diverted from an original award of $2.3 million to Black Hills Sports Inc. to renovate Floyd Fitzgerald Stadium, reducing its Vision Fund award to $1.2 million. At the same time, the council awarded Black Hills Sports an additional $3.8 million from the city's Capital Improvement Fund, bringing the total back to the original Fitzgerald request for $5 million.
In effect, the amount awarded to Vision Fund projects has now climbed to between $25.8 million and $27.8 million — or an increase of up to 46 percent over the $19 million anticipated on the morning of Jan. 31.
So now there’s a project that should be supported by the Vision Fund, Fitzgerald, getting capital improvement dollars while city hall renovations — which should receive CIP funds — get Vision Fund dollars.
And all of this from a council that can quibble for hours over how to spend $50,000.
There’s something to be said for horse trading, but this is not how government should operate. Vision Fund dollars should not be regarded as a city slush fund, useful for normal city projects but free of budgetary oversight. Where’s the vision there?
We like the Vision Fund. It has improved Rapid City. We want to strengthen the process. Here are some suggestions:
• The full and final amount of money to be divvied up should be determined weeks prior to the time of final awards.
• Since city-led projects are not under the purview of the Vision Fund Committee, they should be addressed on a per-project basis and follow a normal budgetary approval process. At the very least, individual hearings should be held on each proposed project.
• Should we reconsider whether city projects should even be part of the Vision Fund, since half of the funds to be collected over the next generation have already been promised to the city arena?
• Finally, a completed preliminary funding plan should be presented weeks prior to the award of dollars, so that final horse trading occurs in the open and after some reflection.
The latest process, which at least partly resembled a high-stakes, back-room poker game, invited suspicion and mistrust. It’s time to revisit the Vision Fund process and lay out something better.