URBANA — Even during lean budget years, the city of Urbana has continued making payments out of city coffers to local nonprofits, and now Mayor Laurel Prussing is asking her counterparts in Champaign to do their share.
Funding for social services has been a priority of the Urbana mayor and city council, Prussing said, but she feels it has gotten to the point that Urbana is "subsidizing" Champaign.
"It worked out that we were spending like six times as much per capita more than Champaign," Prussing said.
Last year, Urbana city officials gave $158,000 to groups like Family Service of Champaign County, the Frances Nelson Health Center, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Champaign County and Community Elements.
The year before that, city officials distributed $217,463 and, two years earlier, the total was $213,230, according to city budget reports.
In the current fiscal year, which is just more than halfway through, Urbana officials have written $102,000 in checks to local nonprofits.
Prussing said that money is important to attack the social and mental health needs of the city's residents, and it is an important part of what city government is supposed to do.
"The city exists for the people that live in the city," Prussing said. "If you are someone who needs social services, obviously that's a benefit. But everyone benefits from social services."
But not only Urbana residents benefit — most of the groups receiving Urbana money are set up to serve the entire county. Many of them are physically located in Champaign.
"That essentially means that we're subsidizing Champaign," Prussing said. "These are mutual problems."
She has publicly asked Champaign Mayor Don Gerard to throw some more money behind the community's nonprofits, and she said she plans to meet with Champaign city administrators about it, too.
"We're just trying to figure out how we can get the whole community to kind of work together on these things," Prussing said.
On Thursday, Gerard said Champaign is a "philanthropic community," and he personally supports community nonprofits. He is a regular at C-U at Home's "One Winter Night," for which participants spend a night on the streets to raise awareness about homelessness.
"We'd like to support our social services," Gerard said. "That's why I go to so many events. That's why I'm going to sleep outside in a cardboard box."
But Gerard was coy about whether the city of Champaign might be in a position to throw more funding behind nonprofits.
"She's made a case, and we'll talk about it," Gerard said. But he added that there are "different ways to look at the equations."
Champaign might not have as much money in a budget line for local nonprofits, Gerard said. But it does plan to spend $7.5 million, for example, to build affordable housing in the troubled Bristol Park neighborhood.
Gerard also pointed out that Prussing has focused on just one budget line — Champaign funds a tourism promotion agency that serves the entire county, for example, and Urbana does not.
"We're carrying the water on our Convention and Visitors Bureau, and she's seeing the benefits on her hotels," Gerard said.
In that instance, he said, Champaign is subsidizing Urbana.
"She's picking out one section, but it seems kind of (disingenuous) to pick out one section and pick on Champaign for that when we've been carrying the water on a lot of other stuff," Gerard said.
Local nonprofits lobby the Urbana City Council each year to make their case for why they should be included in the funding for social services. The mayor and city council members work together to select who receives funding and how much they get — and which groups are left out.
At $38,900, Family Service of Champaign County received the most funding of any single nonprofit during the city's last fiscal year.
Executive Director Sheryl Bautch said that money is important to leverage state and federal grants, which often require local matching funds. Grants from Urbana sometimes are the only way to draw those larger grants from higher sources.
"The city of Urbana funding, even though it may be a relatively small portion of the budget for the program, is really important," Bautch said.
The city dollars provide funding for programs like Meals on Wheels, transportation and home care for seniors.
And the demand is rising. The number of transportation requests, for example, has nearly quadrupled within the past few years, Bautch said.
"We know that, with the aging population, the increase in the need for those services is going to continue," Bautch said.
And a few more dollars never hurt.
"The services that we can provide are limited only by the resources we have to provide them," Bautch said.
Prussing pointed at growing demand for mental health services, too. Community Elements, formerly the Mental Health Center of Champaign County, received $18,500 from Urbana during the last fiscal year.
"It is a pervasive problem, and I think we need as a society to do a better job," Prussing said.
The city of Urbana gave a total $158,000 during the last fiscal year to 14 community nonprofits.
Family Service of Champaign County $38,900
Frances Nelson Health Center $27,600
Community Elements $18,500
Champaign County Health Care Consumers $15,400
Prairie Center Health Systems $11,500
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Champaign County $11,300
Urbana Connections Neighborhood Center $7,700
East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center $6,200
Urbana Park District Youth Scholarship $5,300
Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club $4,600
Rape Advocacy, Counseling and Education Services $3,400
Greater Community AIDS Project $3,100
Peace Meal Program $2,600
University YMCA $1,900
SOURCE: City of Urbana