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Fitz Grant Sanford Community Center

Fitz Grant, program director of the Sanford Community Center in Sioux City, works with students in March 2014. Funding for the gang prevention program was halted this year.

SIOUX CITY | The Woodbury County Board chairman is defending an item in the county budget approved last week that gives more than $180,000 to the nonprofit organization he manages.

“I just happen to be a director here and on the County Board,” said George Boykin, of Sioux City. “It would not be fair for this program to suffer because I am on the County Board.”

Boykin is executive director of the Sanford Community Center, which operates after-school and summer programs for at-risk young people, as well as coordinates numerous outreach efforts. The 1700 Geneva St. center, formed in 1933, is credited with helping generations of children and families.

According to the most recent tax filing, 80 percent of the organization’s annual revenue in 2012 – or $564,831 – originated from government sources.

About a third of that came from the county, in what has become a long-standing practice to support community organizations. Next year, the county will donate $285,524 to several nonprofits, with the Sanford getting the largest portion.

Boykin, who was elected to the five-member board in 1984, said he has never had a say in funding that goes to the Sanford Center and abstains from all discussions during meetings. He said the system works and no changes are needed.

James Van Bruggen, of the Taxpayers Research Council, a Sioux City watchdog group, isn’t so sure. He said transparency and accountability are missing when dealing with taxpayer money.

"It does seem like they are getting favoritism, because they are getting six figures of money," he said.

'THEY NEED THE HELP'

The Sanford Center is one of eight Woodbury County nonprofits set to receive funding in the $51 million county budget approved Tuesday. The donations represent about 0.5 percent of the total budget, which starts July 1.

County Finance Director Dennis Butler said the donations historically have been a way for the County Board to assist community groups facing difficult financial situations.

"In all cases, yes, they need the help. With cutbacks in federal and state funding, we are kind of the final place they can go to get help," Butler said.

The total amount is determined by the County Board in the budget process each year. About one-third goes to the board to give out. 

The rest is directed to the Woodbury County Prevention Commission for At-Risk Youth, a five-member panel created in 2011 to address issues that affect young people. The County Board appoints members.

The commission uses benchmarks and reviews financial documents to determine what organization should get the money, and recommends a selection to the County Board. Since its creation, the commission has recommended its entire share be awarded to the Sanford and its Gang Outreach Program. 

The donation for next fiscal year is $186,925.

Commission member Susan Barta, of Sioux City, said Sanford is getting funding because it helps a wide variety of people and causes.

"I have personally seen the great outcomes that this program has done," Barta said.

She said the money is tremendously effectively and deserved. 

"This program took interest in those kids when their families didn't,” she said.

Boykin said the money is vital because other revenue sources have declined in recent years. Sanford in the mid-1990s received $700,000 from the county and state for gang prevention efforts, he said. The center also gets private and corporate donations.

He also said county officials have worked to improve the selection process. Until 2010, a county Juvenile Detention Center employee was responsible for directing money to agencies serving at-risk children. Now the commission recommends the recipient.

Boykin said the decision-makers are not influenced by his role. In January, he left the room when the issue came up for a preliminary County Board vote.

"That would be inappropriate for me to influence,” Boykin said.

COMMISSION AIMS FOR OVERSIGHT

The County Board this year awarded its share of donations – or $98,599 – to nonprofits groups like Meals on Wheels, the Council on Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, and organizers of the Woodbury County Fair in Moville.

However, unlike the Prevention Commission, there are no rules or standards in place for what agency gets selected. 

Van Bruggen said that's concerning. While the causes may be worthy, it’s unclear what factors are going into the decision, he said. 

"What makes these causes so much more special than other causes? That is the bigger question," he said.

Boykin said County Board members don’t need standards because they already know the issues the organizations face.

"I've been in every last one of them," he said. "We know where the money is going and what it is being spent for."

Seven groups have received money for each of the past four years. For several years, the money has been at the same level. Some have received less money than requested.

In 2013, following a suggestion from Butler and Van Bruggen, county officials started requiring financial statements to make sure the organizations need money.

Van Bruggen said it’s a good first step, but without criteria, the selection process is still a mystery.

"It is hard to say they clearly need the money," Van Bruggen said.

He said a better system would be to divide the money into smaller amounts and help more organizations.

Boykin, however, said there are no plans to change the current system. If anything, he said, he would like to increase donations, although a tight budget hasn't allowed that. 

In the budget approved Tuesday, donations levels are the same as last year. When the funding plan was passed 4-1, board member David Tripp, of Sioux City, cast the only no vote.

Tripp said the county should cut back payments to groups, a change opposed by Boykin. 

Boykin announced last week he’s running in November for a seventh term on the board and said he plans to continue helping community members who need support. It’s his mission, he said.

"These are programs that help us keep families in their homes,” Boykin said, “and families together.”

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County and education reporter

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