A meeting of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Supervisor have $15 million in discretionary funds to distribute this fiscal year. Katie Schoolov, KPBS

Indoor basketball courts in East County, Surf Dog Surf-A-Thon commemorative T-shirts and a La Jolla Playhouse website are among the more than 800 projects funded in part by San Diego County taxpayers since July 2016.

[one_half][box type=”shadow this-matters”]Discretionary funds allow elected officials to support causes in their districts but critics warn they give incumbents an unfair advantage.[/box][/one_half]

The money comes from one of a pair of discretionary funds controlled by the five members of the county Board of Supervisors. The supervisors have given more than $168 million from the two funds since 2002, the earliest date for which records are available for both funds, to almost 1,900 nonprofits, foundations and government agencies.

Supervisors have almost $15 million to distribute this fiscal year. That’s the most in more than a decade.

The two funds are legal but critics of the programs have argued that they amount to a “slush fund” supervisors can use to build name recognition and befriend influential local nonprofits.

The two funds work similarly, with supervisors recommending and approving grants for their share of the money. However, the rules limiting how individual supervisors are thanked and recognized are inconsistent.

Supervisor Ron Roberts declined requests for comment for this story. However, after receiving questions about the rules, a spokesman said the supervisor “intends to review the rules surrounding” both funds.

Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College, said these kinds of discretionary funds are a classic example of retail politics.

“You do specific things to make specific people happy in your district and then the word goes out that you’re a good person,” he said. “It helps to foster goodwill and also helps to foster the possibility of being re-elected.”

The money can also help make county residents view county government overall more favorably because the grants are so targeted, Luna said.

inewsource reported on these funds in 2014, finding supervisors had received written recognition and tickets to galas from grant recipients.

The largest of the two discretionary funds, the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program, gives each supervisor $2 million to distribute each year to local nonprofits, city governments and the county’s own departments. That money is intended for one-time expenses that “benefit the County’s neighborhoods and communities.”

The program has been investigated by the San Diego County Grand Jury twice. The most recent report, filed in 2011, called for more transparency in the way the program was run.

During that investigation, rules were tightened to eliminate recognition of individual supervisors. In 2014, additional restrictions originally championed by then Supervisor Dave Roberts banned presenting grants with oversized novelty checks, and individual recognition of supervisors on social media.

Those rules are supposed to make sure the county overall gets the credit and appreciation for the grants.

“It’s an attempt to make it less political and maybe it works to a small degree,” Luna said. However, supervisors are still likely to get the recognition, even if it’s not explicit.

The second county fund — the Community Enhancement Program — is not subject to similar restrictions. That fund gave each supervisor close to $1 million to distribute during the 2016-2017 fiscal year to nonprofits, business groups and foundations that “promote and generate tourism and/or economic development.” That money can be used for recipients’ operating expenses.

The amount available each year is dependent on the county’s hotel room tax revenue. The amount available this year, almost $5 million, is nearly double what was available in 2012.

Luna suggested the county could set up a “charitable grants arm, allocate a certain amount of money and allow this to be done without the political connotations.” That would take the decisionmaking out of supervisors hands and give it to an independent grant officer.

Soprano Adina Nitescu is Nedda in San Diego Opera's PAGLIACCI. The San Diego Opera is among the top recipients of supervisor grant money. Credit: Cory Weaver & San Diego Opera.
Soprano Adina Nitescu is Nedda in San Diego Opera’s PAGLIACCI. The San Diego Opera is among the top recipients of supervisor grant money. Credit: Cory Weaver & San Diego Opera.

Recipient overlap

inewsource analyzed grant records from the two programs going back to fiscal year 2002 — the first year for which records from both funds are available. It found that although the funds have different stated goals, at least 289 nonprofits, foundations and business groups draw from both wells. That accounts for about 40 percent of the total granted.

For example, the San Diego Opera has received more than $661,000 from the Community Enhancement Program and almost $2.6 million from the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program since 2002.

(It’s difficult to know exactly how many organizations received money from both funds and how much because of spelling discrepancies in the lists of organizations provided by the county. The inewsource analysis standardized names wherever possible.)

At least 29 groups — as varied as Pro Kids Golf Academy, the Downtown San Diego Partnership and the Asian Business Association — have received more than $100,000 from each fund. These nonprofits and foundations have received a combined $23.8 million of county money.

County government agencies are also major recipients, receiving about $18.2 million since 2002. That money is often earmarked for specific projects at parks or libraries in supervisors’ own districts.

Grants from the two funds range from as small as $500 to $500,000 for major construction projects. While the money is small compared to the total county budget of $5.36 billion, Luna said the grants can be significant for the nonprofits.

“Because it’s targeted, it’s huge money for the organizations to get it,” he said. “It’s another revenue stream a lot of nonprofits now play on.”

Neighborhood reinvestment

The Neighborhood Reinvestment Program draws its money from the county’s general fund. Since fiscal year 1998-1999 to the current fiscal year, it has given out more than $159 million.

As of Dec. 21, $4.7 million of the $10 million available to the supervisors this fiscal year has already been given out. The fiscal year ends June 30. Dave Roberts, who was caught in a tight and unsuccessful re-election race in November, has given out his total $2 million.

All of the supervisors declined requests for an interview for this story. In an emailed statement Supervisor Greg Cox said he “tend(s) to recommend (Neighborhood Reinvestment Program) funds for projects that improve quality of life in the district I represent.”

Supervisor Dianne Jacob said in an emailed statement her Neighborhood Reinvestment fund priorities include “expanding and improving ball fields, pools and other youth recreation facilities.”

Community enhancement

The Community Enhancement Program also differs from its sister program in how strictly application rules are enforced. The program allows for more flexibility in its standards for recipients, “so as not to discourage smaller organizations from seeking funding,” according to the county law creating the fund.

The largest recipients countywide for the Community Enhancement Program funds are business and tourism groups. The top recipients of all time include the Julian Chamber of Commerce, the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau and the San Diego East Visitors Bureau.

Leonardo Castañeda was a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.