Which nonprofit should get public funds?

Robert Houk • Apr 24, 2019 at 7:36 PM

Washington County commissioners kicked off their work on a new county budget Wednesday by discussing an old dilemma.

Members of the county’s Budget Committee wanted to know how much the county should contribute to funding outside nonprofit agencies.

“They are all worthy organizations,” said Commissioner Freddie Malone, who also noted volunteer fire departments haven’t seen an increase to their funding requests in many years.

Commissioner Larry England agreed the nonprofits on the county’s current list are all doing valuable work, but asked: “How many more of them are out there?”

Requests for special appropriations from charitable organizations have been an issue that has vexed county officials for a number of years. Commissioners had at one point decided to phase out funding for these organizations, but Mitch Meredith, the county’s director of finance and administration, said that idea was soon abandoned.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy told Budget Committee members Wednesday there were more than a dozen of such requests this year. Some of those asking for funding are local United Way agencies. The list includes the Crumley House, the Dawn of Hope, Girls Inc. and Keystone Dental Clinic.

“They are all top-shelf organizations,” Grandy said. “How do you decide which ones to fund?”

The mayor told Budget Committee members the city of Johnson City dealt with the issue a few years ago by removing all such outside agencies from its annual funding.

“That’s pretty tough,” Grandy said.

He said the county’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee is responsible for vetting the list of charitable organizations asking for funding this year.

Commissioners have also received annual funding requests from the county’s volunteer fire departments. The departments are each requesting $200,000 from the county, amounting to a total of $1.5 million in the new budget. Washington County has been funding each volunteer fire department at a level of $120,000 each.

Meredith said that amount represents the county covering approximately 90 percent of the operating costs for those departments.

Grandy told commissioners the volunteer fire departments rely on fundraising to cover most of the cost for equipment and other capital needs. He said those efforts have been curtailed in recent years by the state Fire Marshal’s Office, which frowns on local firefighters selling fireworks to fund their operations.

Commissioner Jim Wheeler told his colleagues he believes funding for volunteer fire departments should take a priority in the county budget.

“Fire protection, to me, is a basic function of government,” Wheeler said. 

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