Joseph Wilson, the president of the Martin Luther King Subdivision neighborhood association, came across a neighbor one day who said they were afraid to let their daughter play outside in the neighborhood.
The neighbor explained to Wilson that speeding vehicles had been a recurring issue in the community and a possible danger. As it turns out, Wilson discovered that the problem was felt throughout the neighborhood.
During one of its quarterly neighborhood association meetings this year, the group brainstormed about the issue. Kerri Wiman, the director of the Champaign neighborhood services department, happened to be sitting in on the meeting. Hearing the group’s concerns, she decided to direct them to the Neighborhood Services Small Grant Program.
The small grant program is meant to provide funds to certified neighborhood associations to help with neighborhood activities and enhancements. Each grant has a limit of $2,500, and neighborhood associations can receive up to $5,000 each year from the grant fund. If the grant money received is over $1,000, the program requires the neighborhood association to provide a dollar match for the grant.
The grant program gave the MLK Subdivision $895.65, which helped Wilson and the neighborhood purchase and put up temporary speeding and child at play signs in order to help alleviate the rate of speeding around the neighborhood — and it worked.
Wilson said that not only did the signs help cut down on speeding, but people from other neighborhoods would drive by and ask MLK Subdivision residents about how they received the signs.
“In our experience, the city has just been overwhelmingly supportive going through this process,” Wilson said. “In our meetings, (the city) tends to express it in the meetings, about funds being available and utilizing the funds. Encouraging us to utilize them for the projects that we need to do.”
In the 2020-21 fiscal year, which lasted from July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021, the Neighborhood Services department gave out $8,533 in grant money to different neighborhood associations through its small grant program.
Each fiscal year, the program sets a budget for the amount of grant money it is allowed to give out. That amount has fluctuated around $24,000 for the last few years. In 2018-19, the budget was $22,500, which increased to $25,000 for both of the next two fiscal years.
This year, however, the budget regressed by over $6,000 to $18,500.
Wiman attributes the budget to a mix of COVID-19 impacts and people not taking advantage of the full budget. She said most of the grants were for events that required public gatherings and because of the pandemic, that has not happened as much in the last two years.
In the last three fiscal years, the program has never fully depleted its budget for grants. The program gave out $16,932 in 2018-19, $8,164 in 2019-20, and $8,533 in 2020-21. In the past three years, the program has yet to spend as much as it has budgeted for grants.
So far in the last five months, which accounts for most of the first half of 2021-22, the grant program has already almost surpassed the sums given out in 2019-20 and 2020-21. Through Nov. 2, the program has spent $7,662 on grants. The expenses so far this year put the program on pace to surpass the totals of each of the last three years, exceeding their budget, with over $22,000 spent on the year.
Even if the grant program exceeded the budget for the year, the grant program would not necessarily stop handing out grants.
“We can look to see if we have funds in other line items,” Wiman said in a phone interview. “That’s not happened for several years, so we haven’t been oversubscribed. If there was a larger request, that is something that we’d certainly consider.”
The demand for the grants in the first four months of this fiscal year is a sign neighborhood associations are having more in-person events this year, as block parties and neighborhood clean-up events have been the reason for five grant requests so far. Demand is one of the key factors in setting the grant budget year-to-year, so the early demand for this year could be a cause for an increase in the budget next year.
The neighborhood association that has gotten the most grants in the last three years is United Garden Hills Neighborhood Association, which has received eight grants from the program. Those eight grants span from just $85 to $859 with events like round-table discussions, celebrations, and neighborhood clean-up events.
Amy Revilla, former president of United Garden Hills and a resident since her childhood, has worked closely with the grant program through her time with the neighborhood association.
“We couldn’t do it without (the grant program) as far as doing anything for the neighborhood, and it’s helped a lot,” Revilla said about how impactful the grant program is for a neighborhood like Garden Hills, which has over 1,000 addresses.
Revilla does think there are improvements that can be made to the grant program. Coming from the viewpoint of trying to do as much for her neighborhood as she can, she wishes the program could allow for larger sums of money to be given out and that the rules for the use of grant money would be a little more lenient.
Wiman, however, emphasized the grant program is a tool to help neighborhood associations do small problem solving and small neighborhood improvements. It is to incentivize engagement and community work in the neighborhood associations and that it was not meant for larger projects like repairs and infrastructure projects.
The budget for the grant program will continue to fluctuate to match demand. The program has no current plans of drastically expanding, but plans to continue to be a key part of the Neighborhood Services Department through the future.