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Strengthen relations is top priority with grant

Stacy Hanna
The Battle Creek Enquirer

(Originally published by the Battle Creek Enquirer on July 10, and used with permission. The opinions expressed by the Battle Creek Enquirer, visiting Expert in Resident, or the host organization do not necessarily represent those of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.)

The city of Battle Creek said it will use its $1.6 million Yes we can! grant to improve local government and neighborhood relations.

The grant — spanning three years — will fund staff, programming and education, all part of a larger effort to bring local government more in step with residents’ needs, including knowledge and access to city resources and services.

“We need to make sure our services are meeting the needs and expectations of residents,” City Manager Wayne Wiley said. “At the same time, residents need to know how to engage other resources, including each other, to solve problems most important to them. A two-way dialogue that translates into a whole new way for the city to do business — that’s what I see as a result of the work this grant begins.”


It may be just a beginning.


Wiley admits that the transformation will likely take more than three years, but said he believes it is the right course of action.


“Residents have consistently asked the city to work more closely with neighborhoods since 1996,” he said. “While we’ve made a lot of progress, there is more work to be done.”


Since 1995, the city has operated the Neighborhood Partnership department, which links about 36 neighborhood associations with city services such as code compliance and public safety. Budget reductions over the past five years have left the department deflated.


“This grant provides the resources the city needs to dramatically improve services in an area residents have said is a priority.”


So what’s the plan? What changes will be made and who is going to make them?


Cherise Brandell, former director of Yes we can!, was hired in April to serve as the city’s director of neighborhood and community services, a position that will pay her a total of $315,637 in salary and benefits for three years — $142,250 in city dollars and $173,387 in grant dollars.

Her new duties will include supervising staff and overseeing city-wide performance evaluation based on citizen response.

Brandell, who has been on loan from Yes we can! to the city since last year, said she has extensive experience in neighborhood organizing in Battle Creek and feels confident in her new position.


“This is fantastic news for the citizens of this community,” Brandell said. “This grant supports residents’ efforts to help themselves and it shows a commitment by the city to focus services at a neighborhood level. I look forward to the challenging work ahead.”


Brandell and her staff will work from the new Neighborhood Resource Center — the former Yes we can!  office — in downtown’s Riverwalk Center.


Brandell sees the center as a place where residents can hold meetings and access problem-solving resources, including two computers for public use and technical support.


“The Neighborhood Resource Center is a very exciting piece of this grant work. We will develop a center for residents to access information, which is a powerful tool for residents wishing to create change,” Brandell said.

“Residents have relied on Yes we can!  as a resource for several years. . . with this grant, the city is adding to programs that are already working and building on the success residents have already shown us is possible.”


Rounding out the neighborhood services staff will be:


·  One neighborhood economic developer: a grant-funded position, to be housed at the Neighborhood Resource Center. This position is not yet filled, but will be posted in accordance with city hiring policies. The economic developer will be responsible for increasing tax revenues through the development of new neighborhood businesses and helping families to achieve financial self-sufficiency.


·  Three neighborhood organizers: one position is currently filled and funded by the city. The two remaining positions will be grant-funded and posted. Organizers will be housed at the Neighborhood Resource Center. Among their duties, organizers will develop and strengthen relationships between residents and the city, promote and coordinate activities with neighborhood groups and city staff, and work with organizations such as churches and schools to recruit participants for neighborhood planning. Their duties will be similar to the former Yes we can!  neighborhood “connectors,” who lost their jobs when the Yes we can! office dissolved in May.


·  One neighborhood center coordinator: a grant-funded position, to be posted. The coordinator will offer technical and clerical assistance to residents as well as incubate neighborhood-based programs until self-supporting. The coordinator will be housed at the Neighborhood Resource Center.


·  One code compliance officer: This position is currently filled and funded by the city, but will be paid for with the grant money for the next three years. The officer will be housed at the Neighborhood Resource Center. The compliance officer will inspect housing complaints and issue notices to correct as well as assist residents in resolving violations.


Nearly $1.2 million, or close to 75 percent, of the grant is allocated for neighborhood resource staff, consultants and temporary personnel. The remainder will cover overhead at the center, planning expenses and project evaluation.


So what happens when the money runs out? The city of Battle Creek recently had to raise taxes and make cuts to deal with a $2.5 million budget deficit for its budget year beginning this month.


Wiley said he feels once the city adopts a neighborhood-oriented way of thinking, the budget priorities will follow, but admits it might be a challenge.


“Our options were to sit back and do nothing, or do something,” he said. “We’re all about taking some risk.”

“We’re not talking about growing new revenues — there will be a gradual shift in resources (in the city’s budget) should the commission see fit.”


Wiley said the neighborhood services transition already is under way, and he looks forward to the change.


“Right now, the whole city operates relatively independently,” he said, referring to the city’s internal agencies. “We don’t work together on a regular basis.”


Wiley said he looks forward to implementing a new approach to neighborhood relations, which will include face-to-face interaction with residents.


“This is going to be a major cultural shift from where we are today, which is answering 911 calls — a major strategic shift,” he said.

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