chicagoel

As a watchdog against CTA, public housing and school ills, the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group announced last week that it’s closing up shop after nearly 20 years of operation.

For some time, NCBG had been facing what executive direction Jacqueline Leavy calls “funder fatigue.”

Since 2003, the staff went from 10 to two and has been facing challenges securing funding from major foundations that have either altered their grant-making policies, reprioritized, or ceased funding the group all together.

Other groups, NCBG said in a letter on its Web page, wouldn’t continue granting money to the same organization year after year. Ultimately—after trying to secure research contracts as well as possible grants from the state that didn’t come through—that was it.

“Ironically, everyone with money seemed to think we were so successful and effective, that somebody else’s foundation would come along and support us, and their foundation needed to spread the money around,” Leavy said.

The group’s closing comes at a harsh time when CTA riders and commuters are continually growing unhappy with its service. With slow zones on the Blue Line making headlines and a local campaign for text-messaged CTA customer complaints, the NCBG’s organized Campaign for Better Transit is coming to a halt, too.

Leavy said she’s proud of NCBG’s list of achievements over the years. The group helped save the Green Line and made public transit a front-page story over the years. The group also assisted in getting the funding necessary to renovate the Brown and Blue lines.

Public schools have also been one of the NCBG’s projects. The group wanted to get new school and public libraries built in neighborhoods in addition to an array of other public works projects: infrastructure repair, like repaved sidewalks, streets, and alleys, as well as improving sewer and water problems in neighborhoods to curb flooding.

Rene Heybach, director of the law project for the Chicago Coolation for the Homeless, who has worked with the NCBG on public housing and public schooling issues, said the group often challenged her to know what was going on.

Heybach who said the NCBG did a lot to maximize public assets, said she feels like she’s lost one of her own.

“We’re in a climate where our major does not welcome full disclosure of all community groups. Those who are critics sometimes pay for it.”

NCBG also took a stand on TIFs, or tax increment financing, a tool that can be used to generate property tax dollars for economic development in particular areas of the city, such as schools, parks and public buildings.

Leavy said the group unmasked the secrecy behind TIFs in the city and began educating the public about the complex issue.

“We [got] inquiries about our TIF reform work from all over the nation, even Canada,” Leavy said.

Now, Leavy worries there aren’t many funders who realize the need for long-term advocacy that’s separate from city hall and most organizations will not posses the resources the NCBG provided. Leavy hopes a similar organization will form when and if the public needs one.

“For a while, we united people across the city, across race and class lines to demand more investment in the neighborhoods,” Leavy said.

Wildred Wiley, NCBG’s board president and senior director of government and community affairs at Bethel New Life, said she thinks the group did phenomenal work.

The group said it plans to keep its two Web sites, ncbg.org and bettertransit.org, online for the next six months and promised the group’s board of directors and its allies will continue fighting the issues the group has made its priorities for years in other ways.

“I love driving by the many public schools and libraries that we helped local organizations and residents organize to get built,” Leavy said. “I love it that public transportation is a major beat at the daily newspaper—it wasn’t before our campaign to save the Green Line. I love to see the many neighborhoods where we inspired and aided the local block clubs and community groups to demand that their streets, alleys, sidewalks, etc. be repaired—the city has a dramatically different look and feel in the aftermath of the ruckkus we raised about the urgent need to rebuild the city’s infrastructure and the billions that have been invested since 1992.”

The Columbia Chronicle, February 12, 2007