As York County officials looks at the 2011-2012 budget in coming weeks, nonprofit groups that get money from the county for educational, health, environmental and other services might find their allocations cut or reduced.
County funding to nongovernment agencies tops $1 million in the current budget.
As more nonprofits seek county support each year, county leaders have found distributing money fairly increasingly difficult.
While $1 million might seem a small part of the county's $80.3 million general fund budget, giving money to nonprofits has raised questions about the proper role of government.
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County Manager Jim Baker explored those concerns when a largely different County Council took up last year's budget. ways the county might - and might not - be justified in funding nongovernmental agencies.
The resulting problem: Without a test to determine which groups to help and how much, the county has become a consistent source of money for at least 20 organizations.
Sometimes, the tax money helps fill specific public needs. In other cases, it is more like a charitable contribution - supplementing an agency's overall budget rather than meeting a public need as defined and accepted by the county.
Should the county give money to charitable organizations at all?
It is a question the seven-member York County Council, with five new members this year, already has asked - and in some ways answered - when it denied a $3,000 grant to a group planning events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Friendship Nine sit-ins in downtown Rock Hill.
While Councilmen Chad Williams and Bump Roddey argued that supporting the events had a great benefit to the community, the remaining five council members maintained that it isn't the county's place to spend taxpayer dollars that way.
When setting the coming year's budget, which will take effect July 1, Baker told the council it should consider:
Whether the agency provides a core government service.
Fitting this bill is Keystone Substance Abuse Services, Baker argued, a private agency that also serves as the county's designated substance abuse treatment agency.
While county rescue squads offer a service some governments provide, they also compete with private providers and collect fees - making paying for the services with tax dollars less justifiable.
Agencies that depend on county money to secure state or federal matching dollars could risk collapse without local money.
The York County Council on Aging, for example, receives six federal dollars for every local dollar it raises. The county gave about $89,000 to the group last year.
With a total budget of $2.5 million, the agency provides senior centers, meals and in-home services for elderly and transportation for medical and other reasons.
Some agencies rely on county funds each year.
Agencies serving the elderly, children and the homeless provide undeniably valuable services, Baker wrote in his report, and have received county funding over the last several years.
They include the Speech and Hearing Center, Catawba Mental Health, Children's Attention Home, Boys and Girls Clubs, York County Adult Daycare, Safe Passage, United Way and A Place for Hope.
The United Way receives close to $21,000 to operate warming centers in the winter. If the county no longer funded them, the agency would have to make up for it some other way, said Lora Holladay, community impact director of housing and stability.
Whether the county can justify continuing to give them money is less clear, Baker wrote, especially when the county receives requests from other agencies with "comparably deserving programs" and declines to give them money.
'Life or death'
To those running the agencies, there's little question that the services they provide are necessary.
County money helps the Boys and Girls Club provide after-school mentoring and activities for youth, including some at-risk children. The interaction they get with caring adult role models might be all they ever get, executive director Alonda Simmons said.
The organization already has seen a loss in funding from grants and private donors due to the economy, she said.
Any additional loss might mean lost programs.
"We would definitely feel it," Simmons said.
Holladay called money for the warming centers "a life-or-death situation."
"If you have nowhere for people to go," she said, "they could freeze to death."
A popular suggestion is to have nonprofit agencies make up for lost government money by soliciting private donations.
That would be extremely difficult and require resources many agencies just don't have, said Wendy Duda, the Council on Aging's executive director.
For one, she said, all agencies would be approaching the same communities, the same people, for support.
"Then there's a cost of doing that business," Duda said. "Most agencies don't have fundraisers. I don't have extra staff. We cut all the time.
"All of us feel we need it (support) the most and that we're the most important."
Promises to keep
Having campaigned on slashing the budget line by line, many of the new county councilmen are ready to rethink the county's funding philosophy.
But it's still too early to tell whether the council will take a similar approach to last year - cutting nearly all agencies by 3.5 percent - or whether the severity of their cuts will differ.
Opposed to making charitable contributions with taxpayer money, Council Chairman Britt Blackwell said he will consider agencies "on their own merit" and "let each council member do what their heart tells them to do."
"I have an issue with matching grants," said Councilman Bruce Henderson. "It's our money to begin with."
Henderson said he won't necessarily oppose giving county money for matching grants. He just feels like there needs to be a precedent set.
"You have to have some guidelines in place," said Councilman David Bowman, who'd like to focus on funding "core services" - police, fire protection and economic development activity.
He also advocates scaling back other government, but not eliminating it immediately.
"Let's not go in there and knock the budget off in the first year if it's a decent cause."