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Rights to the Bikes

news2The City of Santa Cruz puts its bicycle distribution program on hold

For the past 17 years, the City of Santa Cruz has distributed bicycles recovered by police to underprivileged youth through local nonprofits.

But the program—which has been consumed in the last year by controversy over which organization gets to middleman the bike handoffs—is currently on hold until police and city staff implement a new system.

Santa Cruz Police Deputy Chief Steve Clark says the previous arrangement placed a heavy burden on the department’s evidence management staff. As of mid-June, he is working on designing a new bike program that he hopes will be less of a hassle and benefit more people.

“We’re not distributing them to anyone right now,” Clark says. “We’re hoping to come up with a program that’s beneficial for the entire bicycling community as well as less work for my staff.”

From 2008 until early 2012, SCPD designated its unclaimed bicycles for donation to the Bike Church, a bicycle repair nonprofit that initially proposed the partnership to the department. The Bike Church then repaired the bicycles as necessary—many of which required significant work, they say—and distributed the lot to community nonprofits including Barrios Unidos, Green Ways to School, and Project Bike Trip’s high school repair classes.

But, in February of last year, the police department abruptly switched over to the Bike Dojo, a for-profit business that created a charitable program called Project B.I.K.E (Believe In Kids Exercise), which collaborates with nonprofits Community Bridges and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), to get bikes to kids.

Kyle McKinley, a volunteer speaking on behalf of the Bike Church, says there was a lack of transparency when the decision was made, and that the Bike Church was the most well suited to oversee the program.

“There were a number of reasons for the switch,” Clark explains. “But overall it was a fairness issue.”

He says whichever group is receiving the bikes is benefiting—the Bike Church by having access to the parts, some of which they sell in the shop, and the Bike Dojo by selling some of the functional bikes to cover the costs of Project B.I.K.E.

The majority of the bikes coming out of SCPD, however, Clark says, are junk.

While Clark says fairness was at the core of the change up, he says an assortment of background issues also contributed to SCPD’s decision.

During the city’s partnership with the Bike Church, Clark says SCPD staff took the bikes in dumpsters to the nonprofit, where Bike Church volunteers sifted through them, and then the city had to return to retrieve the dumpsters.

“There were a lot of logistics issues, and the Bike Church had it for quite some time,” Clark says, adding that Bike Dojo created a new model that was less work for SCPD. 

Clark says that SCPD additionally had relationship problems with the Bike Church.

“We were unhappy with some of their distributions as well as the treatment of our staff,” he says.

McKinley concedes that there were “some moments of friction.”

Although SCPD has suspended its donation of bicycles, Bike Dojo owner Rob Mylls says Project B.I.K.E will continue to benefit kids with bikes donated from the community.

At the SCPD storage room, which Clark says contains hundreds of bicycles, Bike Dojo staff was previously hauling out between 20 and 40 bikes monthly, though usually only a small portion were ride-able. Their most recent pick-up was in May, Mylls says.

Mylls says that the Bike Dojo gives some of the bikes to local groups and sells the cruiser bikes so he can purchase locks and helmets, which he then distributes to children through Project B.I.K.E.

“It is not a money making operation,” Mylls says.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Micah Posner, however, says that the Bike Dojo, from the get-go, should have been disqualified from receiving bikes from the city because of a 2008 ordinance that states the organization receiving donations from the city must be tax exempt, or, in other words, a nonprofit or project of a nonprofit.

The Bike Dojo’s Project B.I.K.E. program, while affiliated with Community Bridges, has not attained nonprofit status through the organization, confirms Community Bridges’ Director of Philanthropy Naomi Brauner.

But, Brauner adds, the Bike Dojo did help get a lot of bikes to Santa Cruz children.

“There was a mistake made by the city and giving the bikes to the dojo was in violation of the ordinance,” Posner says.

Meanwhile, Mylls questions Posner’s objectivity on the matter and his allegiance to the Bike Church, citing his membership and role in founding the organization.

Clark says he and Assistant City Manager Tina Shull will present new ideas for what to do with unclaimed bicycles to the city council in the near future. Clark says he is also interested in bringing in a volunteer who can catalog the bicycles stored at SCPD and post them on the department’s website. That way, people who can prove ownership can claim their bikes.

“That will help alleviate the headache of my poor property staff,” he says.

“Certainly,” Clark adds, “what the police department doesn’t have time for, are bike wars between two distribution programs.”

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