OCEAN CITY — Deciding what charitable, non-profit groups should get grants and at what level continued to vex Ocean City officials this week, as they continued through the budget process, and the answer certainly isn’t a clear one.
The Mayor and Council continued its department-by-department review this week for the fiscal year 2019 budget and the discussion ultimately came back around to special appropriations in the form of grants to various non-profit organizations. Each year, the town includes in its budget grants and donations to charitable organizations large and small and at what level, but questions are always raised about which ones are deserving and which provide real benefits to the residents and visitors.
During Tuesday’s budget deliberations, the issue arose again as the Mayor and Council reviewed the list of requests from non-profit organizations. Conspicuously absent from the list was the Worcester Warriors for Opioid Addiction, although that appears to be a communication breakdown, and the Worcester County Education Foundation, which fills gaps and voids in the county’s educational funding to some degree.
Councilman Wayne Hartman said he believed the Worcester County Education Foundation should be included on the list, but there was a question of where to find the $2,500 requested by the organization in the balanced budget. Hartman explained the organization provides services to the community, but also support’s the town, pointing to an event it held at the Performing Arts Center last year.
“They held an event at the Performing Arts Center,” he said. “Beyond what they do for education, they are serving us in a different way because of the exposure for the Performing Arts Center.”
Hartman said it was becoming increasingly difficult to determine what non-profit requests best served the needs of the town and at what level grants should be provided and suggested a cap should be in place for the overall charitable donations.
“I just don’t like it when we exclude an individual entity,” he said. “If we’re going to do it, I think we need to pick an amount and spread it over all of the requests.”
Hartman made a motion to fund the $2,500 request from the Worcester County Education Foundation by reallocating money from other existing grants. However, Budget Manager Jennie Knapp said she didn’t want to necessarily raid other grant allocations to fund the unfunded request.
“I don’t want to be the one who says we’re going to cut money from somewhere else,” she said. “That’s up to the council.”
Councilman John Gehrig said the whole grants to non-profits process seemed somewhat arbitrary and convoluted.
“It feels like we don’t have a strategy,” he said. “Helping is great, but when does it stop. I’d like to see how some of these entities complement what we do and work backward from that. It just seems a little haphazard.”
Councilman Dennis Dare pointed to the Atlantic General Hospital grant as an example of how the policy should be formulated. Last year, AGH was not included in the special appropriations budget, but the Mayor and Council later went back and granted $100,000 to the hospital after it was illustrated just how important the nearby emergency room was to the resort.
“I thought we started formulating a policy when we discussed AGH and the $100,000 for its capital campaign,” he said. “We determined that the hospital provides a real service to the town and helps with ambulance fees. If you apply that same principle to the things on this list, I think we decided that should be the policy.”
Dare said in a larger sense, the town’s citizens can pick and choose which charitable organizations they prefer to donate money to and it wasn’t necessarily the role of government to do that.
“Every one of our taxpayers has the opportunity to donate to these various entities on their own,” he said. “I’m not going to vote to expand grants unless we can identify the benefit to the town. If we extend this to all well-meaning, deserving organizations, we’ll have a line around the building.”
Hartman said not all the organizations and programs on the list met the standard of providing a direct benefit to the town. He continued to push for a cap on the overall special allocations budget.
“I don’t think all of the things on this list fit that criteria,” he said. “Not all of these things have an immediate benefit to the town, but that doesn’t make them any less deserving. I think we need to have a set allocation in the budget. I think we need a fixed amount and then we can allocate who gets what and at what amount. If we’re giving away taxpayer money, I don’t want to sit up here and judge.”
Councilman Tony DeLuca agreed a new plan was needed for special allocations, but pointed out the clock was ticking on the current budget cycle.
“I think we need a strategy,” he said. “We need a strategy for what goes on the list, and a strategy for how much is allocated. Now is probably not the time to do it for this budget, but we need a strategy by the next time.”
Mayor Rick Meehan pointed out many of the organizations on the list had come before the council in years past to make their pitch and their inclusion on the list was based largely on those presentations. He suggested perhaps it was time to bring them back in to make presentations again rather than just flat fund them year after year.
“The reason why some are on this list is because they came to us and made a presentation,” he said. “They came in and showed how important it is to us and how it provides some service that we don’t and what it would cost us to provide that service. Maybe we should have them come back and do that again. That can be the strategy.”
Gehrig then went back to the overall arbitrary feeling from the special appropriations strategy.
“Our policy doesn’t feel right,” he said. “It’s not up to us as a government. This isn’t about our hearts. We can make donations personally. That’s our hearts. As elected officials, we represent the taxpayers. If we don’t have a plan in place, this will spiral out of control. We are a government organization, not a charitable organization.”
Hartman reiterated the need to set a cap on special appropriations.
“I think the ultimate goal is to set a cap for non-profits,” he said. “Then our difficult task is to figure out how best to use it.”
Meehan said it might not be entirely correct to characterize the special appropriations to non-profits as giving money away.
“I don’t think we’re giving money away,” he said. “I think we’re investing in the community with these various services and programs. It’s just a difference in terminology, but it’s an important difference.”
In the end, the elected officials agreed to resolve some of the special appropriations request during the budget wrap-up sessions next week and to attempt to find the funding for the Worcester County Education Foundation. They also agreed to formulate a strategy whereby the various organizations come in at different times of the year and make presentations.