County’s CORE Investments to fund 57 public service programs out of 127 that applied

Public comment during the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.
(Via County of Santa Cruz)

The three-year grant cycle aims to address changing — and growing — social services needs throughout Santa Cruz County. There’s never enough money for all applicants, and this year the county board of supervisors applied some new priorities.

The start of the 2022-23 fiscal year is just a day away, and Santa Cruz County now has a $1.03 billion budget to work with over the next 12 months, approved unanimously Tuesday by the board of supervisors.

That’s a lot of cash, to be sure, and as there is in any budget process, there are winners and losers. This year, one of the biggest sources of contention is the program known as CORE, or Collective of Results and Evidence-based Investments. It is a funding model and movement designed to “achieve equitable health and well-being in Santa Cruz County” by funding social services performed by nonprofit organizations.

The program amounts to only one-half of 1% of the county’s overall budget. However, for dozens of community nonprofits, a fraction of the $5.9 million total means a lot.

Some 127 organizations applied for CORE funding, their requests totaling more than $15 million. The organizations submitted grant requests, and an independent panel of experts and residents then grades those applications and makes its recommendations to the board of supervisors.

Beginning in the 1980s, progressive majorities on the board of supervisors began taking money from the budget to fund community programs through allocations to nonprofits. For many years after, funding amounts stayed largely stagnant. Then in 2017, the program took on the name CORE and added a competitive process for funding. The funding had been designed to last three years, but was extended for two more years into this year due to COVID.

3rd District Supervisor Ryan Coonerty told Lookout that the outcomes of this year’s process marked a divergence from the previous cycle.

“The process we went through was similar to the one from 2017, but the outcomes of who got the highest scores were significantly different,” he said. “We were investing in a couple of new initiatives, particularly Cradle-to-Career [a user-friendly database focused on early learning through higher education, social services and financial aid], that we’ve really been piloting in Live Oak and that we’re now taking to the rest of the county. So these allocations were certainly different.”

Of the 127 applicants for this cycle’s funding, 57 programs were recommended for CORE funding by the appointed panel. CORE divides the applicants into three tiers — large, medium and small — based on how much money groups request. The table below shows the top five programs from each tier that received the most funding.

See the entire list here.

Many groups received cuts, resulting in a strain on vital programs.

Community Bridges, which delivers essential services across a variety of programs including Meals On Wheels and Family Resource Centers, will see its annual CORE funding cut by more than 50%, from about $1 million annually to $405,000. Mental Health Client Action Network (MHCAN), a peer-run organization dedicated to providing mutual support, saw its CORE funding of $45,000 cut entirely.

The supervisors recognized the difficulties some organizations will face given the changing allocations. Consequently, they agreed to add $500,000 in bridge funding to organizations experiencing funding cuts. MHCAN is one of 23 organizations eligible for the bridge funding.

Sarah Leonard, executive director of MHCAN, said the cut will severely affect staffing. Though MHCAN does receive funding received through a contract with the county’s mental health department, Leonard said the additional annual CORE funding goes a long way.

“The employees I had are good people and they worked so hard,” she said. It’s a shame that we weren’t valued more.”

Leonard added that’s always a struggle for MHCAN.

“We apparently did not score high enough on the grant, but when some organizations have professional grant writers, and we have understaffed, differently mentally abled personnel, we’re at an immediate disadvantage,” she said. “Our existence is always precarious.”

Ray Cancino, CEO of Community Bridges, says cuts to his organization will mean a noticeable decline in service bandwidth, and detailed the impact on the Meals On Wheels program.

“There’s $31,000 less for senior meals, and that means 3,000 fewer senior meals are going to occur in Santa Cruz County,” he said. “I think the fact that we are a large organization sometimes does a disservice to us, because we’re not seen as providing all of the services that we do.”

Eight other Community Bridges programs did not receive funding recommendations.

Cancino says a deeper understanding of each applicant is required to provide the most accurate allocations.

“If the context of the organization’s impact is excluded, we’re going to continue to have this outcome where the best paper gets the funding,” he said. “I know there is some consideration of impact, but the process isn’t fully considering who is providing the most cost-effective service, bringing in the most federal dollars, or providing services to a specialized population.”

Coonerty points to the hard decisions that have to be made.

“I think overall, their programs just didn’t score as high,” he said. “I think they do incredibly important work, as does every program that applied, but they did not score as high and so they didn’t get funded like they had in the past.”

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