The tumult that has plagued the East Central Community Center since operations were split from city management five years ago continued this week, when the Spokane City Council deadlocked on renewing a contract with the nonprofit in charge of services.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said a compromise was in the works to ensure the 25 staffers at the center at 500 S. Stone St. will be assured a job through the end of the year, and the city’s subsidy will delivered on time this month. But the East Central Community Organization has been operating without a contract since the first of the year, which employees say is unfair and makes their job more difficult.
“Emotionally, it’s a hard place to sit,” said Janelle “J.J.” Jelinek, who has served as executive director of the center since August.
The City Council considered on Monday a six-month contract renewal with the neighborhood organization separately from contracts with nonprofits operating other community centers in town. On a 3-to-3 vote, with Stuckart absent, the council did not approve the agreement, arguing a six-month time frame was not adequate for Jelinek and her staff to seek grants and work toward establishing a new dental clinic for low-income patients at the facility.
“This doesn’t make sense to me, that we’re talking about a six-month extension and yet we have people in Olympia right now, working on a dental clinic,” said City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who voted against the contract extension. “I’m confused and a little frustrated.”
The “no” votes leave the community organization without the promise of $172,223 in funding to support a half-year of programs at the center. An after-school youth center, activities for disabled adults, a food bank, and poverty assistance programs SNAP and WIC are offered at the neighborhood center, which opened in 1979. Jelinek said 17,821 people received services at the center last year, which operates in a portion of the city where roughly half of the residents live at or below the poverty line.
The six-month extension was part of a compromise offered by a panel of neighborhood residents and city officials who reviewed the community group’s performance on several indicators written into their contract, which was originally signed in 2012 and renewed two years later. City Councilman Breean Beggs, who served on that panel and pushed for a six-month extension that would enable the city to seek competitive bids to operate the center, said there were concerns about the long-term economic plan and how welcoming the center was to the community.
“We came up, as a committee, with a compromise,” Beggs said. “We said, we need to turn the page, and create a whole new perception. Whoever is going to be running the center, they need to have a plan to really meet the community’s needs.”
Beggs said a competitive process that produces a new contract could ease the center’s financial burden to replace aging infrastructure in the building. Staff say the automated heating and cooling system doesn’t work properly and recent heavy snowfalls have damaged load-bearing beams on the top floor.
Other members of the review panel who were contacted for comment referred to their colleagues or did not return calls.
Management of the center was turned over to the East Central Community Organization, a nonprofit focused on housing and other social services, in 2012, following the resignation of the center’s director amid concerns about payroll fraud. A year after the organization took over, in December 2013, some black residents complained they were being ignored by the center’s new operators. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the neighborhood’s black population is at about 8 percent, four times that of Spokane County overall.
Ryan Hamilton, the center’s youth program director, said he believed the city could have done more to communicate why they didn’t want to sign a long-term contract.
“If feels like, instead of being judged on our merit, we’re being judged on mistakes that were made in the past,” Hamilton said.
Matt West, who’s worked at the center for the past four years and is the current program director, agreed.
“For people that take their time, their effort and their careers to make sure people’s feelings are being taken care of, it’s tough when that favor isn’t returned,” West said.
Stuckart plans to bring a proposal for a yearlong contract up for a council vote at its scheduled meeting Monday night.
The center provides services that the neighborhood depends on, Hamilton said, and staff will continue to provide those services, which include opening up on holidays and snow days and taking students who have been turned away from other programs.
“What’s scary is, what happens if they close this place down? I’m going to have to go get another job,” Hamilton said. “But what happens to the kid I’m mentoring at Sheridan (Elementary)? He loses his mentor.”
Jonathan Mallahan, the city’s neighborhood services director, pledged the city would work to ensure services aren’t interrupted. A competitive process is needed, however, to ensure that the center’s subsidy – the largest of any given to community centers in the city – is spent wisely, he said.
“We still believe that it is in the best interests of the citizens to have the most effective use of public money,” Mallahan said.
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