Funding for a proposed $1.5 million community kitchen was left intact Tuesday by City Council, which voted against a staff recommendation to defund the project.
After a contentious two-hour debate, the El Paso City Council voted 5-4 to leave the funding dedicated to the community kitchen, with Mayor Oscar Leeser casting the deciding vote.
“I believe that if we make a commitment to an organization, even though there’s things that have come up, we need to continue to support and follow our commitments,” Leeser said before breaking the tie.
City staff asked the council to pull back the funding so that the city could reevaluate the proposed El Pasoans Fighting Hunger kitchen, as well as other community needs. The city allocated the funding for the kitchen in summer 2020, but had yet to sign a contract with the food bank.
Nicole Ferrini, the city’s chief resilience officer, said the city did not sign a contract because it disagreed with the food bank’s practices for record keeping, saying the city had a “disagreement” as to what compliance, or following through on the contract, would look like with the food bank.
“We have never come to agreement on that definition; that is what gave us pause at that time,” Ferrini said.
Susan Goodell, CEO for El Pasoans Fighting Hunger, said the food bank is dedicated to building the kitchen within a year of any contract signing. The plan for the kitchen, which would be based at their Plaza Circle headquarters in the Lower Valley, would be to provide hot, prepared meals, instead of food boxes.
“Today was a victory for the most vulnerable people here,” Goodell said. “And I’m so grateful to the council and to the mayor who broke the tie for continuing to award these funds at the food bank to serve people.”
City Rep. Peter Svarzbein opposed the staff recommendation because there is a need for a community kitchen and because the city had previously allocated the money.
“I believe that a promise is a promise,” Svarzbein said. “This council made a commitment to the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger Food Bank in 2019’ it is a commitment that should stay.”
Among those who asked the council to pull back the funding were Reps. Alexsandra Annello, Cassandra Hernandez, Cissy Lizarraga and Claudia Rodriguez. Those who voted to fund the kitchen were Leeser, Svarzbein, Joe Molinar, Henry Rivera and Isabel Salcido.
Hernandez said she wanted the city and food bank to resolve issues over the community kitchen in the future.
“The public is dependent on organizations being in compliance, and the city has to mitigate risk,” she said. “My decision today was to mitigate that risk, because I don’t feel comfortable with the direction this has gone.”