A county program that was slashed in half under intense scrutiny may be on its way back to full strength.

Four years ago, under sustained criticism, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors cut in half a controversial community grants program that gave $2 million a year in taxpayer money to each of the five county supervisors to dole out to local nonprofits.

Starting in the 2011 fiscal year, instead of $2 million, each office would have just $1 million to award, and the cash came with some new strings that reined in how it could be used and how it was reported.

Now the supervisors want the other $1 million apiece back.

Supervisor Dave Roberts introduced a motion Wednesday to “restore the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program funding” to the earlier level. It was quickly approved.

Wednesday’s meeting was a public budget hearing, but there was no public testimony and the audience was packed with county employees (it was unclear where the public, if they were to actually come en masse, would sit).

Roberts’ motion, as well as the entire county budget, must still be approved and deliberations are continuing.

“When the economy went down, that budget was reduced,” Roberts said of the original cuts to the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program. “This change brings it back to $10 million,” $2 million for each of the five supervisors, and will fund things like health centers and outdoor classrooms at parks. He said the pot of money is dedicated for “bricks and mortar” type improvements.

But one reason the program, formerly known as the Community Projects Program, was unpopular was because of a nagging impression that supervisors were doling out money with their own interests in mind, not those of county taxpayers.

Some have called it a slush fund. Others say it gives sitting supervisors a $2 million re-election fund.

And a slew of allegations of misuse and conflicts of interest didn’t do much to bolster its reputation.

Former Supervisor Pam Slater-Price traveled to Europe in 2006 courtesy of a nonprofit that she had helped fund to the tune of $180,000 over several years. And Supervisor Ron Roberts, after directing money to the San Diego World Trade Center, went on six Asian trade missions on their dime. The practice of nonprofits paying to send elected officials on international trips has since been deemed illegal by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

The reinvestment program started in the 1998 fiscal year with a total budget of $5 million. The budget was increased to $10 million the next fiscal year and stayed there through the 2010 fiscal year.

Dave Roberts said he hopes increasing the budget will allow him to do more for his district without squabbling with fellow supervisors over funding priorities.

“Every year we can pick and choose what are the priorities in our district,” Dave Roberts said. “My contention is, who can better make recommendations on their districts than the representative for that district?”

The grant program is important for the county “as long as it’s done in an open, transparent and fair way,” Dave Roberts said. The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on the budget June 24.

Ari Bloomekatz is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government. You can reach him directly at ari.bloomekatz@voiceofsandiego.org...

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