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Accusations Arise Over Lack of Funding for Santa Monica Youth Center
By Niki Cervantes
August 11, 2017 -- Two years ago, when the Santa Monica City Council threatened to strip funding from a local nonprofit for at-risk youth, neighborhood outcry poured forth in a public hearing, including name calling and even tears.
Later, the council quietly came up with a $50,000 matching grant to help the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC) it once seeded with $350,000 keep its doors open.
Not this year.
On June 29, when the council adopted the City’s $1.57-billion biennial budget, no funding was included for the center near Santa Monica High School, which serves about 150 at-risk youth between the ages 16 and 25.
PYFC was never recommended for funding, officials said. No council vote was taken.
“Zero -- that’s what we got,” said Oscar de la Torre, PYFC’s executive director and founder.
De la Torre said he was told privately by two top City officials before-hand not to speak out this year about the center’s funding needs.
PYFC took heed of both warnings, the first from Mayor Ted Winterer and then, separately, from City Manager Rick Cole.
So, he said, the PYFC did not go the route of two years ago, although –- as in the past -- it needed the money.
Not a word since, de la Torre said.
“We’re still waiting for that solution.”
Winterer’s response to de la Torre’s recounting of why PYFC received no City aid was brief.
“I'll be frank: he's lying,” Winterer said in an email to the Lookout.
“I never met with him or spoke with him about funding for PYFC for this fiscal year,” the mayor said. “I know he spoke with Rick Cole, but never with me. And he ought to recall that I'm the one who got him a grant the prior year -- when he asked for one.”
Cole said in an email to The Lookout that he met once with de la Torre during council “consideration of the budget (which included several of his staff and participants), once since.
“It is correct that I suggested to Oscar that a repeat of an earlier time when he and his supporters packed a Council meeting with angry protesters would be as ineffective as it had been the last time,” Cole said.
He said he told de la Torre that “since that time when he prepared a funding plan and he and his board members presented that plan in advance, the Council did support a $50,000 matching grant that was awarded from Council discretionary funds without controversy or divisive rhetoric.
“I suggested that he work to develop a plan for sustaining the center as the basis for seeking both community funding and potential future city matching funding and I offered to support the effort to develop such a plan.”
Both meetings were regarding “long-term sustainability for the Pico Youth and Family Center,” Cole said.
“I understand his sense of urgency and I share it,” he said. “But there are two challenges that the board and staff of PYFC must take responsibility for: not only keeping the doors open in the next few months, but having a credible plan for how the center can be sustained over time.
“That’s a community challenge and not one that can be blamed on the city government,” Cole said.
Years of acrimony between the PYFC and some council members came to a boil in 2015 when supporters by the dozens showed up to protest the potential loss of funding, which the year before totaled $190,000.
Council Member Kevin McKeown, an education technology consultant with the local public schools, intimated de la Torre (a long time local school board member) was trying to bully him into providing funding.
De la Torre said the accusation was a misunderstanding.
Despite pleading, anger and tears from PYF supporters, the council voted 4 to 2 (with McKeown recusing himself) not to provide funding.
The City's funding for the center began with a 2001 grant in the wake of deadly gang warfare that had broken out in the Pico Neighborhood in the late 1990s.
Since then, PYFC has branched out now into the politically sensitive issue of gentrification in the Pico Neighborhood and other “social justice” causes.
De la Torre cites those issues, as well as a Voting Rights lawsuit pending against the council by a Pico neighborhood group, as the real reason the council -- liberal reputation aside -- is pulling funding.
His critics on the council say PYFC is now too politicized for City government money, and needs to start standing on its own feet financially, he said.
“They said we are too reliant, so we went out and we fundraised,” de la Torre said.
The center is temporarily raising enough to keep its annual budget at about $300,000, de la Torre said ("Pico Youth and Family Center in Santa Monica Sees New Hope," January 4, 2017).
But that leaves it with a bare-bones staff to help at-risk younger people other programs rarely reach and their families, he added.
But de la Torre says he has not lost hope in the council, and still believes peace can be made -- and maybe even some 11th-hour funding secured.
“Is $100,000 too much to ask?” he said. “It would reach hundreds of families who know what it’s like to be afraid to let their children go outside. These are who we reach.”
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