Neighborhood organizations, which often carp at city hall over the quality and extent of its services, are getting an opportunity to see if they can do the job better.
And for the cities they serve, these groups are meeting a special need: Many municipal governments face sharp cuts in money and manpower.
Under contracts with city and county governments, neighborhood groups are being paid to do everything from housing rehabilitation and maintenance and programs in city parks to sidewalk repairs and rat control.
In one of the more unusual contracts, the Selwood-Moreland Improvement League in Portland, Ore., operates a popular wedding chapel in a historic city building on city park land. The city, still obliged by the contract to maintain the property, gets a percentage of the lucrative ceremony fees. The league uses what's left to pay for other neighborhood improvements.
Though neighborhood-government partnerships now account for only about 5 percent of local public-works operations, they have been growing rapidly in recent months. And many experts view their future as open-ended.
''I think the arrangements are a plus from every standpoint and that they're going to take off in a variety of ways,'' says Richard Simpson, a University of Illinois political scientist and a founder of the National Association of Neighborhoods (NAN). ''Cities are running out of money. And putting more people permanently into downtown city bureaucracies doesn't look as if it's in the cards.''
''The delivery of services has been the main job of cities for the last 100 years. But now, stuck with millions of people who are unemployed, cities are changing their primary mission to economic development,'' observes Milton Kotler , vice-president of the Center for Responsive Governance, an organization doing major research on the community-service partnership concept. ''We'll see continued decentralization of services as the old mission is transferred to new sources. And community-based nonprofit groups aren't going to just sit back and watch as everything is contracted out to private business.''
For cities, the neighborhood partnerships sometimes - but not always - save dollars. More important, the work done under these arrangements is often more effective. And the added cooperation possible from residents can pay subtle but significant dividends.
In Kansas City, Mo., for instance, members of three neighborhood groups will act as housing-code inspectors beginning in May under an 18-month contract with the city. The hope is that by knowing many of the residents personally and having an interest in helping them improve their property, the neighborhood workers will score major gains in compliance.
''It's kind of a psychological shift to try to get away from someone with a city badge carrying the club of law,'' notes John Tangeman, Kansas City's assistant director of housing and community development. ''We're hoping to get a more cooperative attitude and a more effective system.''
For the neighborhoods, the advantages include more jobs for unemployed residents, added revenue for the organization and the area, and pride of accomplishment and a stake in a job well done that goes with living in the work territory. Neighborhood groups may also go on to offer the same contract services to private businesses.
''It's a matter of getting more sophisticated and moving into the big league, '' says Milton Kotler. ''I really see this as a survival thing for neighborhood groups and their interests.''
But there are some potential problems with these arrangements: potential political hassles as competition for contracts increases; growing objections from unionized workers; and the lack of capacity of some neighborhood groups to do the assigned job well.
A contract by which job performance is monitored is considered essential. In an effort to help neighborhood groups become more professional in bookkeeping and other areas and to plan ahead against the increased risk of lawsuits, the National Association of Neighborhoods, under a new Department of Housing and Urban Development grant, will soon provide technical assistance to 16 groups in eight cities in a demonstration project.
While unions have largely been quiet so far, some nonprofit groups have averted criticism by unionizing themselves. The Burnside Consortium in a skid-row neighborhoodof Portland operates a licensed alcohol detoxification clinic under a $1 million-plus contract with Multnomah County. Sixty of the neighborhood group's workers used to work for the county, when it ran the clinic. Their former union is now the consortium's official bargaining agent.
Burnside executive director Andy Raubeson says he sees no reason contracting neighborhood groups need to give up their old advocacy role.
''There's always going to be political give and take, and we have a pretty good track record of bringing about public-policy changes,'' he says. ''The real question is whether or not (in taking on service contracts) you've sold out your principles by compromise.''
Many see the changing role for neighborhood groups as an opportunity to make their criticism more constructive. Jim Segrist of the Butchertown Neighborhood Government in Louisville, Ky., describes his group as a virtual arm of city government. The organization has been working with the city in housing rehabilitation and sidewalk repair, and it's proposing a garbage and street-cleaning contract.
''I think these contracts are a perfect kind of thing for nonprofit groups,'' he says. ''Too many have fallen into bad-mouthing what's going on. They aren't beginning to take advantage of all the possibilities. . . . Many neighborhood groups are really social clubs, and they could evolve into so much more.''