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Since 1998, the county supervisors have distributed more than $100 million of taxpayer money to nonprofits and public projects through a controversial fund now called the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program.

On ballot statements and campaign literature, Stephen Whitburn, a community health educator vying to unseat Ron Roberts, has called the program a political slush fund and promised to end it if elected. He’s made it one of the main issues in his campaign.

But in recent conversations with voters and the public, Whitburn has said something quite different.

If elected, he’s said, he would continue funding the program and push for a citizen panel to publicly discuss and recommend how money should be spent. The supervisors now make recommendations themselves and generally approve grants without debate.

So does Whitburn want to eliminate the fund altogether or add a bureaucratic layer to funding decisions? I called him for clarification. If the county added the citizen panel and made the process more transparent, Whitburn said he would no longer consider the program a slush fund.

“I think people approve of the county supporting worthwhile nonprofits and programs. We need to end their use as slush funds,” he said. “[The citizen panel] would be more inclusive … and it would take politics out of it.”

Although absent, Roberts did support recent changes that limited the program’s spending to one-time capital improvement projects. Supervisors banned several often-criticized practices such as allowing themselves to be individually recognized for the grants.

Earlier this year, the supervisors also cut the program’s $10 million budget in half.

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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