A controversial program that allows each San Diego County supervisor to give grants to community groups has been doubled from $1 million per supervisor to $2 million.
The money comes from a special fund called the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program. It's intended for all types of "brick and mortar" improvements at hundreds of organizations, including schools, libraries, parks and nonprofits.
For years, the program has been criticized as "pork" by some and championed as necessary community investment by others.
Supervisor Dave Roberts, who each year awards on average the highest number of grants, according to an inewsource analysis of the grant program, made the motion to double the program at Tuesday's board meeting. The move restores the funding to previous levels before it was cut it 2010.
"The economy is improving. We have lots of needs throughout the county, and I made the motion to restore the former funding level. However, I want to take a leadership role in making sure everybody believes this program is open, fair and transparent," Roberts said.
Roberts suggested making sure all the grant applicants are listed on the county's website and instituting rules about supervisors accepting gifts from the nonprofits to which they award grants.
In 2006, Supervisor Ron Roberts and former Supervisor Pam Slater-Price went on international junkets funded by organizations that received more than $718,000 from those officials’ discretionary budgets.
Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego, said those changes should have been put into place before the fund was doubled in size.
"This fund has had a troubled past. It has, in the past, been used to benefit the individual supervisors politically," Dooley-Sammuli said.
The money goes to all types of organizations, like the Scripps Health Foundation, the Living Coast Discovery Center, the Natural History Museum and the Children's Museum.
NBC 7 got a close-up look Tuesday at the $500,000 Birdwing Open Air Classroom where children learn about bird species and other animals along the San Dieguito Lagoon. The Birdwing facility was paid for almost entirely by the county fund.
San Dieguito River Joint Powers Authority Executive Director Dick Bobertz said the facility would not have been possible without the Neighborhood Reinvestment Program.
"We have people who bring out hawks and live animals and snakes and so forth, and it's just a wonderful variety of educational materials that the kids get access to in the natural habitat, where they can see what's going on," Bobertz said.
Three years ago, Congress put a ban Congressional earmarks -- sometimes referred to as "pork-barrel spending" -- in which the House and Senate can add to bills to benefit people or charity organizations in their own districts.