SNOW HILL – The hall was packed with education supporters Tuesday night for the Worcester County public budget hearing, but in a reversal of tradition, other areas of the county budget got the most attention, particularly grants to non-profit social services organizations.
The budget hearing, held every May at Snow Hill High School, attracted a standing room only crowd.
In years past, education supporters, asking for money for teachers, after-school programs and school construction projects, dominated the microphone.
Last Tuesday night, speakers spent more time on the other categories, from non-profit grants to the Worcester County Fair.
Grants to non-profits is a sore subject. Worcester County, unlike most Maryland counties, has in the past granted routine grants to local non-profits, like homeless shelters and counseling services. The County Commissioners have said they will not fund those non-profits this year, however.
“Worcester County does not operate a homeless shelter, battered women’s shelter, food bank or housing authority…in the past, you’ve said, good for you for doing the work so we don’t have to,” said resident Kate McQueen.
The county looks to private non-profits to handle these and other social service functions, she said.
Now, McQueen said, when times are tough, the commissioners will not allocate any money, even though homeless shelters and food banks need more support in light of increased usage.
Without financial support from the county, the Diakonia Homeless Shelter in West Ocean City will not qualify for many of the federal grants it relies on to operate. Those grants require a match from local jurisdictions.
McQueen recommended raising county taxes a fraction of a percent to support the work of non-profit social service agencies.
“Don’t balance the county budget on the backs of our poor homeless and hungry citizens,” McQueen said.
Mildred Ward also supported the social service non-profits. “As a taxpayer, I am willing to accept my share in any increase in county taxes,” Ward said.
“The measure of a community is how it cares for its citizens in need,” said Diane Weeman. “I propose that we raise our property tax rates to 73.8 cents to make sure we’re here for our citizens who need it.”
Joan Roach said she would rather see a boost in the taxes she pays than an increase in suffering in Worcester County, and she would like to see the funding to the non-profits restored.
“What Diakonia has become in our community is the last ditch effort, the safety net if you will, for people who have lost work,” said shelter director Claudia Nagle.
The shelter’s food pantry use has doubled since October, from 2,000 bags of food a year, to 4,000, and use is growing.
“Without support from the County Commissioners, the county grant, we run the risk of keeping them in other places where it costs more,” Nagle said, adding that it costs more per day to jail someone than support them at Diakonia as they work to get their life back together.
“It’s more than shelter,” said Nagle. “It’s learning how to live and how to contribute.”
Worcester Youth and Family Counseling Services (WYFCS) Mike McGarry, a board member of the non-profit Worcester County Developmental Center, and June Walker, director of the center, asked the County Commissioners to continue non-profit grants. McGarry pointed out that the center was asking for 60 percent less than it received last year.
“We provide a vital service to the county,” McGarry said.
Theresa Fields, executive director of the non-profit WYFCS, reported that her organization, which offers counseling, life skills training and help with concrete necessities like rent, jobs and housing, is seeing three times as much use this year.
Counseling referrals alone are up 500 percent, said WYFCS Assistant Director Carolyn Cordial.
“All day long people are calling in pain, desperate. In the years I’ve been at Worcester Youth and Family. I have not seen this magnitude,” Cordial said.
“People seeking services at our office have been just unbelievable this year…if there are not positive support systems in place. they will most assuredly find negative ones,” said Fields.
Less money could force closure of WYFCS’ Pocomoke office, as well as less services to children in foster care and less outreach in rural areas. Additional space at the Berlin office for youth programs will not be able to go forward, either.
County funding has helped the organization leverage $1.5 million from other sources over the past few years, said Fields.
Neighboring counties do not support such services, Fields said, and have correspondingly higher rates of crime, drug addiction, and homelessness.
The four staff members of the Family Connections Resource Center, part of WYFCS, made a case for their one-stop services referral center, which, they said provides help for the whole family.
“Our numbers have quadrupled,” said Debbie Dotson. “We help people who are truly at their wit’s end in this county.”
If the Pocomoke center closes, 124 families in that area will be without the help provided through Family Connections, Dotson said.
Richard Blevins, a 30-year law enforcement veteran, ran the CSAFE program in Berlin, and worked with the social service non-profits first hand on a number of cases.
“You’re going to end up spending the money one way or the other … you’re going to spend it over here on your jails and prisons,” Blevins said.
Cultural non-profits also had their say.
Chris Welch, a member of the Worcester County Arts Council board, a non-profit that promotes the arts and awards art scholarships, asked the commissioners to remember that arts organization in the budget.
“In tough times, folks tend to rely heavily on the traditions and resources in their community, and I feel that the county fair is both of these,” said Fair Board member Meg Arnold, making a case for continued funding of the Worcester County Fair.
The free fair draws 10,000 to 12,000 visitors from the county and surrounding area, according to Arnold.
“This is one of the local events that help to market Worcester County as well as help stimulate the local economy and business,” Arnold said.
Worcester County Fair ad sales, vendors fees, sponsorships and donations are all down, according to Arnold.
“That is why the funding from the county is more crucial than ever to keeping this local tradition, which draws the community together, alive and thriving,” Arnold said.
The commissioners will begin budget deliberations on May 20, at 9 a.m. The work session will be held in the commissioners’ Government Center meeting room. A second work session if needed will be held May 26 at 9 a.m.