City Plays Favorites With Nonprofits

The environmental group with a connection on the council pays very little rent, the 'controversial' Latino-outreach group pays much more

The oldest wooden structure in San Juan Capistrano is the Congdon House, a bucolic-looking two-story home with a gray-blue slatted exterior, running water and 2,120 square feet of inside space. Built in 1878 by Pony Express rider Joel Congdon, it sits on the edge of a working farm—an oasis in the center of South County’s tract-home sprawl—and overlooks a shack selling fruits and vegetables picked on the premises.

Here, nonprofit organization Ecology Center runs an interactive museum and plans events to spread the gospel of good, environmental living. After less than two years of operation, it has attracted the attention of Huell Howser of PBS’s California’s Gold, an episode of which will be taped there in the coming months, according to Ecology Center founder Evan Marks.

On the opposite side of town, a squat, mission-style structure sits on asphalt on the campus of an adult-education school. The building holds two things: public restrooms and a brightly painted, 284-square-foot-space in which nonprofit CREER Comunidad y Familia plans cultural and educational events aimed at leadership development and gang prevention in the city’s largely Latino downtown neighborhood.

Curt Merlo

For the use of this closet-like space, CREER pays the city of San Juan Capistrano $4,123.68 per year. For the use of the relatively spacious Congdon House, the Ecology Center pays $680 per year. Even if a proposed hike to $1,200 per year for the center gets approved, the environmental nonprofit will be paying less than a third of the amount CREER does—for more than seven times CREER’s square footage.

“How do you justify that?” asks Mayor Lon Uso. “I think we set a horrible precedent.” He’s on one side of an ongoing debate over whether it’s fair for the City Council to be playing favorites when it comes to nonprofits. Nearly all agree that veterans’ groups should be eligible for fee waivers from the city, and some say special consideration should be given to other organizations. And—as might be expected in a city such as San Juan Capistrano, where Latinos make up one-third of the population, according to the 2000 Census—those considerations have been influenced by tensions over illegal immigration.

When CREER moved into its space in 2007, the council was in the habit of nixing fees for community nonprofits that wanted to operate out of city buildings. But after hearing complaints in the spring from a group of residents who accused CREER of coddling illegal immigrants, the council accepted the city staff’s recommendation and raised the organization’s yearly dues from $0 to $4,123.68, or $1.21 per square foot per month—roughly market rate, according to the agenda report. It also reduced CREER’s license from a minimum of two years in duration to one and admonished CREER’s directors that they could lose their space if they didn’t keep their activities aboveboard. “If we rent them a room, we rent it at fair market value,” Mayor Pro Tem Laura Freese said at a meeting in May. “No more subsidies.”

The scene was different when the Ecology Center’s license came before the council in July. The nonprofit was asking to renegotiate its $680-per-month deal with the city to acquire a few more favorable terms of usage and to change the title on the license. The city staff, though, asked the council to consider raising the rate so as to cover the $4,500 budgeted each year to maintain the building. In a 3-2 decision, the council voted in favor of a license that would hike the fee to only $1,200 per year, which works out to less than five cents per square foot per month.

To justify keeping the fee low, council members Freese, Tom Hribar and Mark Nielsen cited the center’s programming and that it is relatively new and has spent money “improving” the Congdon House with solar panels. When the license expires in three years, the trio said, they will consider raising the rate again. Freese said she didn’t buy the city staff’s estimate about the cost to maintain the house.

“All of us compromised,” says Marks. “Hats off to the City Council that they see the work that we’re doing.”

A final vote on the Ecology Center’s new license was scheduled for Sept. 21’s council meeting but was pushed back at Marks’ request. CREER leaders, though, have begun wondering aloud how they can get the same deal that’s being considered for the environmental group. In a letter to the council, CREER president and former San Juan Capistrano mayor Joe Soto urged the council to demonstrate “consistency” in granting licenses to nonprofits.

He also questioned the behavior of Freese, who, until Sept. 20, sat on the Ecology Center’s board of directors. Because she wasn’t paid by the organization, she was legally allowed to participate in the July vote regarding the center’s license—a vote that would have been deadlocked without her. She even advocated for the center’s fee remaining at $680 per year. “The fact that she voted for this speaks loudly to the fact that if we’re board members of an organization, we shouldn’t vote on this stuff,” Uso says. “Because sometimes you vote with your heart instead of your head.”

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