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So long, county Community Projects Program. Hello, Neighborhood Reinvestment Program.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is considering an overhaul of its persistently derided community projects grants program, which awards $10 million in taxpayer money annually to local nonprofits with few rules about how the money gets divided.

The policy change, proposed by Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Price, attempts to answer some of the long-standing criticisms facing the program, which have gained traction as the county has laid off workers but kept doling out grants. The unions leading the ballot initiative to create term limits for supervisors have cited the grant program — and its lack of reform — as evidence the supervisors are out of touch.

The new proposal, which the supervisors will weigh at their Sept. 15 meeting, calls for the grant money to be spent solely on capital projects. That would, in theory, prevent expenditures on such things as holiday dog festivals. (In theory because the guidelines only go so far as to say “a significant amount of the grant funding must be spent on capital costs” — not the whole amount.)

The proposal would also require recipients to properly acknowledge where the grant came from: “County of San Diego at the recommendation of Supervisor (Insert Name Here).”

Supervisors have often received individual recognition, creating the impression that they were giving the money themselves — not awarding taxpayer money.

And they have used the program to cultivate campaign donors and political support. In 2007, we found that Slater-Price had leaned on recipients of the grants for campaign donations more than any other supervisor.

The supervisors have also benefited directly from the program, accepting international trips courtesy of the groups they’ve funded. Supervisor Ron Roberts has directed almost $1 million to the San Diego World Trade Center, which has in turn sent him on six Asian trade missions. In 2006, Slater-Price traveled to Austria and the Czech Republic courtesy of Mainly Mozart, a nonprofit she has directed more than $180,000 to since 2001.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission has since made it illegal for nonprofits such as the trade center to pay to send elected officials on international trips.

Supervisors have always claimed the program came as a benefit from having surplus revenue. But when the global economy crashed last fall, Supervisor Greg Cox said the program would likely stop.

However, they have kept it going. If the supervisors approve the overhaul proposal, nonprofits would have to request more than $3,500. Currently they can give out any amount. The new policy would also require that a list of recipients be posted online.

ROB DAVIS

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