January 30, 2003
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Facing budget cut, group ponders future of VMP

Can the Village Mediation Program (VMP) continue, without a paid coordinator, as an all-volunteer program, and if so, in what form? Last Saturday, Jan. 25, VMP Steering Committee members met to consider those questions in the light of proposed cuts in the Village budget.

After the discussion, VMP steering committee members agreed to ask Village Council for a significantly reduced amount of funding to cover the critical aspect of the program, which they believe needs a consistent and professional presence.

Prompting the meeting was Village Manager Rob Hillard’s recommendation to Council that the Village cut its annual funding to the mediation program by about two-thirds, from almost $15,800 in 2002 to $4,900 this year. The cut means the program would no longer employ a paid coordinator, who currently works about 10 hours a week to oversee the program. Last year the coordinator, Irvin Foster, was paid $13,000. The program’s budget for 2003 would cover costs associated with materials, phone, training and other aspects of the program.

Hillard recommended the cut when he presented a preliminary budget at a December Council meeting. The budget process continued this week with two workshops. The first reading of the budget will take place during Council’s meeting Feb. 3.

“We’re having to make some hard choices,” Hillard said in an interview.

The Village must tighten its belt because it anticipates losing $100,000 in revenue in the multi-fund budget, due to the closing of one of Vernay Laboratories’ local plants, and because the Village plans to implement several large capital projects that need immediate attention, he said. Although Hillard made the recommendations, Council has ultimate authority as to which ones to adopt, he said.

Begun in the late 1980s by then Mayor Jean Hudson, the Village Mediation Program was originally used as an arena for settling local residents’ private disputes. Over the years the program has mediated about 30 to 40 disputes yearly, according to VMP Steering Committee president Len Kramer, although the numbers have dropped the past couple of years.

The VMP expanded its scope beyond private issues to also sponsor forums on a variety of topics of public debate through the years, including the use of pesticides on lawns, affordable housing and the village climate after the 2000 recall campaign, Kramer said. VMP has also presented workshops on conflict resolution in the public schools.

The program is overseen by the Steering Committee, which currently consists of Kramer, Saul Greenberg, Sarah Wallis, Hardie Davidson, Toni Dosik and Tony Arnett, Council’s liaison to the committee.

At Saturday’s meeting, the Steering Committee considered which of the program’s functions could be covered by volunteers. Steering committee members could take over most administrative tasks currently handled by Foster, those present agreed, including the tasks of training volunteers, outreach, taking phone and e-mail messages, picking up mail, collecting statistics, managing the library and communicating with volunteers.

However, committee members agreed that the program’s intake process, during which those who use the program make their initial contact with a VMP representative, could not be adequately covered by volunteers.

“People call when they’re in need,” Greenberg said. “Their emotions become attached to the intake person.”

The intake process requires consistency and confidentiality, two attributes that would be harder to maintain with a rotating group of volunteers, said several board members.

Steering Committee members agreed to ask Council for $3,000 in additional funding, about one quarter of the amount previously allotted for a program coordinator, in order to hire someone 10 hours a month to handle the intake process. They also will inquire about the possibilities of paying the Dayton Mediation Program to cover the process, and of using a student in Antioch University McGregor’s conflict resolution program to cover the job.

Without a professional intake person, the program will not be able to continue, committee members said.

“This is something that, bottom line, cannot be done by volunteers,” Kramer said. “If we can’t get the funding, then probably we won’t have the program.”

Losing the VMP would be a significant loss to Yellow Springs, said longtime VMP volunteer and professional mediator Bruce Heckman, who believes that the village would especially miss VMP-sponsored discussions on community issues.

“The village itself loses when it loses this resource,” Heckman said. “We lose one more support for constructive dialogue, one more group that advocates and assists our ability to have a good, healthy public dialogue.”

—Diane Chiddister