Columbia Neighborhood Watch faces funding crisis

Tuesday, December 23, 2008 | 2:41 p.m. CST; updated 4:53 p.m. CST, Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Columbia Neighborhood Watch is suffering from funding problems at a time when it could be needed most.

Neighborhood Watch is a nonprofit organization that works with the Columbia Police Department to train residents to be observant and aware of crime in their neighborhoods. This awareness is meant to prevent nonviolent crimes, such as burglaries.

“Neighborhood Watch is our eyes and ears out there in the public,” said Sgt. Lloyd Simons, supervisor of the Community Services Unit at the police department.

Simons said building camaraderie and communication between neighbors and the police is key. Watch volunteers look for anything out of the ordinary and know how to react to crime in their neighborhoods.

An increase in property crimes is a concern in many neighborhoods. From Jan. 1 to Nov. 20 this year, 746 burglaries were reported in Columbia , according to a Nov. 25 police department news release. The number is up 259 burglaries from the same 11-month period in 2007.

“Violent crimes are going down, but the property crimes are going up,” said Dick Gray, the treasurer of the Watch, at the annual membership meeting in September. “That’s where we come in.”

Yet, because of a lack of donations and public misconceptions of how the organization operates, the Columbia Neighborhood Watch has been forced to drastically cut its expenditures in recent years.

Cuts have been so extreme that in the past year, the Watch only spent $49.

“We used to spend about $1,500 to $2,000 a year,” said Dick Gray, treasurer of the Watch.

Watch volunteers are trained to watch strangers in their neighborhoods. If one notices suspicious behavior, the volunteer will report it to the authorities along with any other useful information, such as a physical description or license plate number.

In addition to the training, the Watch provides other services to the community — purchasing and installing Neighborhood Watch street signs and providing crime prevention information to the public through meetings, home inspections and literature.

Officer Mike Hayes, the liaison between the Watch and the Police Department, said the low number of signs is the one of the biggest concerns with the organization’s lack of funding.

“We’d love to put a sign on every corner, but that’s not going to be feasible,” Hayes said. “The Police Department tries to help out as much as it can, but everyone’s in a budget crunch now.”

The catalyst of the Neighborhood Watch’s financial problems was the decision to stop printing and mailing copies of the Crime Watch newsletter to members, which included a small section that solicited donations.

“That’s what you call ‘unintended consequences,’” Gray said. “We kind of got a spike through the heart of our donations. I’ve been trying to recover through the Internet, but it’s very difficult because it’s not nearly as personal.”

The Watch has yet to receive any donations for the current fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1.

The Columbia Neighborhood Watch falls under the 501(c)(3) tax law, making donations to the organization tax-deductible for those who itemize on their income tax return.

Donations can be made through PayPal at the Neighborhood Watch Web site.


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