The county supervisors added several spending restrictions this morning to a controversial grants program that’s frequently come under fire and become a campaign talking point.

The program gives each supervisor $1 million annually to spend on nonprofits and public causes of their choosing. It previously gave each supervisor $2 million annually, but the supervisors cut the program earlier this year while facing political pressure and budget cuts.

The new restrictions, proposed by supervisors Greg Cox and Dianne Jacob at today’s board meeting, limit what grants the program may fund. It may pay for one-time costs associated with capital improvement projects, such as retrofitting a community center, but may not pay for food, entertainment, travel, fundraisers or personnel.

Cox and Jacob said the new restrictions would restore the program’s original intent. The current board created the program in 1998. Cox said the program was meant to enhance local government services — such as libraries, parks and community centers — and wasn’t meant for charitable giving.

For the first time as county supervisors, Bill Horn and Ron Roberts are facing runoff elections this year. Their challengers, Steve Gronke and Stephen Whitburn, have continued to criticize the program and called for a more transparent process since moving past the June primary.

The grants are generally approved with a rubber stamp by the board without debate. Critics have called the program a slush fund that’s used to curry political favors.

The World Trade Center, for example, sponsored Roberts’ trips to China; Roberts had given the organization more than $800,000 in public funds in taxpayer funds. Supervisor Pam Slater-Price has received campaign fundraising help from the leaders of organizations that she supported.

Most recently, CityBeat reported that the county awarded $80,000 to a Christian nonprofit over three years to provide pro-life materials to children in schools and the outcry forced the supervisors to revoke a recent award to the nonprofit.

The supervisors voted unanimously to approve the new restrictions. Roberts supported the proposal through a statement, but did not attend the meeting. He’s part of a delegation of San Diego politicians lobbying this week for federal funding in Washington, D.C.

Both Horn and Slater-Price expressed concern that the new restrictions would take money away from community programs. Several nonprofit representatives, in fact, requested an exception for independent contractors like musicians or teachers, but the board didn’t budge on its proposal.

Jacob said the county can’t afford to fund programs that fall under the responsibility of school districts and other governments. “We cannot be all things to all people,” she added. “That’s not our responsibility.”

Apart from saying how grants may be spent, the supervisors added several other policies previously recommended by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. The changes, aimed at improving transparency and accountability, include:

• Posting the names of recipients on the county’s website if they fail to provide required documentation more than 60 days past deadline.

• Requiring that recognition should go to the county of San Diego, not individual supervisors, when recipients highlight the funder.

• Forcing recipients to give the money back if it isn’t used for the approved funding. The grants are not charitable contributions.

• Banning supervisors from accepting gifts from organizations that receive funds.

Jacob added the last policy to the proposal after Whitburn, a community health advocate challenging Roberts’ bid for re-election, recommended it during public comment at the meeting.

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.

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