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Should Washington County fund non-profit agencies?

Robert Houk • Mar 8, 2020 at 8:30 AM

As work begins on a new budget, Washington County commissioners face some familiar questions when addressing funding for non-profit agencies.

Should such programs receive money from taxpayers? How do county officials decide which agencies get funding, and how much? Is it time to end the practice altogether?

Those were some of the concerns voiced by members of the county’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee last week. The committee will soon consider annual funding requests from nearly 300 non-profit organizations in Washington County.

The committee’s recommendations will go to the Washington County Budget Committee, which then must decide if the requests should be included in the county’s proposed fiscal 2020-21 budget.

A Question Of Funding

The Johnson City Commission has discontinued the practice of handing out annual appropriations to non-profit organizations, and county commissioners have talked about phasing out the process in recent years.

County Commission Chairman Greg Matherly said county officials decided a few years ago to “step down” annual contributions going to non-profits by 10% each year until they are completely eliminated from the county’s budget.

Even so, the county approved nearly $60,000 last year for non-profit groups, such as the Coalition for Kids, Dawn of Hope and Girls Inc. Matherly said county officials have been “stuck at that number for quite a while.”

During a discussion last week on the practice of giving special appropriations to non-profit groups, members of the Health, Education and Welfare Committee seemed to be divided on the issue. Commissioner Suzy Williams noted the most of the groups in question have boards of directors that are responsible for raising funds, and some of the organizations now receiving county tax dollars have healthy reserves in the bank.

“I have no problem with cutting them out completely,” she told her colleagues.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Steven Light said he was “of the opinion” the county should continue funding the non-profits.

Commissioner Danny Edens, chairman of the HEW Committee, said the panel is running out of time to decide whether to proceed as usual or to discontinue the practice. He said the committee will have to make a decision by April.

“We have to do this in a timely manner,” Edens said. “It’s basically a do-or-don’t issue.”

The committee voted last week to table the issue until its meeting next month when commissioners will be able to review individual funding requests from non-profit agencies.

A New Approach

Washington County officials have been exploring other options to lend a helping hand to non-profit organizations that provide valuable social services to the community. One approach, which Commissioner Jodi Jones discussed at the HEW Committee meeting on Thursday, is to create a position to help local non-profit organizations obtain grant money to do their vital work.

This “non-profit support specialist” would focus on grant writing and helping local charities meet their marketing, communications and networking needs.

The committee endorsed the idea late last year, and the full County Commission voted 8-4 in November to approve a resolution “supporting the investigation” of the county partnering with United Way of Washington County and the city of Johnson City to create a position to help local non-profit organizations obtain grant money for their work.

Jones said the idea is the county could spend some of the funds now going to non-profits to help those organizations hire a specialist that would find enough grant money to help “cover the gaps” that exist between a community’s needs and current public services. Unfortunately, she said, the concept has met “a dead end” with some government officials.

”We’ve not been able to move it along in a timely manner for this fiscal year,” she told her colleagues on the committee.

Kristan Spear, the president and CEO of United Way of Washington County, told the Press last year the grant writer’s position would be co-funded by the city and county (at a proposed $40,000 each), with her organization providing office space and related support. The non-profit specialist would work with all of the 290 non-profit organizations in Washington County — not just the 22 agencies currently funded by United Way.

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