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“Outside Agencies”: Can you think of a better name? Or a better way?
Several nonprofit directors said at last week’s budget hearing that the term "outside agencies" is a misnomer for the nonprofit social services and cultural groups the city funds in its budget, because many of them provide vital services in partnership with government offices, so they’re not really "outside" (but they are outside the city government organization). Tonight, a few council members said they also don’t like that term.
If you can think of a better word for these groups, which are very diverse, then have at it, but the council’s got bigger problems than what they call them.
Tonight, a week after they seemed to have wrapped up some of the bigger decisions in their budget process, council members decided to start asking the same question that I have seen come up in every single city budget process I have covered since graduating from college (not just Fredericksburg): Why exactly do we give taxpayer money to all these groups, and not others, and how do we prioritize them?
Councilman Brad Ellis started things off by going back to a decision the council made last week to distribute an extra $150,000 among non-government nonprofit groups. (That money would come from the extra penny the council decided to add to the real estate tax rate last week.)
"I don’t know if it’s the best approach to fund all the outside agencies to the same degree, just to fund them, just to throw them a bone," Ellis said.
He proposed cutting $50,000 from the extra to outside agencies, leaving them with an extra $100,000 that he suggested prioritizing rather than distributing across-the-board. He said the city just shouldn’t spend that $50,000, so that it doesn’t have to take it out of its reserve, in light of recent comments by a bond rating agency on the city’s use of reserves.
That proposal didn’t get much support, but several council members did say something they’ve said before at this time of year:
"At some point after this budget process, I think we should take a look at the total picture of how we fund outside agencies," Councilman George Solley said.
Solley then proposed that the council up its contribution to the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center next year. The museum is proposed to get $90,500 next year, which is 30 percent less than it got this year. Most other nonprofit groups are getting cuts of between 15 and 50 percent next year.
"I am concerned that we have funded virtually every agency at [a 15 percent cut] except for the museum," said Solley, who along with the mayor and city manager, sits on the board of the museum.
He proposed giving the museum another $19,000, money that would add to Fredericksburg’s reserve spending next year. None of his fellow council members supported that proposal. A few pointed out that other groups, including the Bragg Hill Family Life Center, are getting cut by more than the museum.
Mayor Tom Tomzak pointed out that the museum is one of the most successful private fundraising organizations in the city.
"I can throw a party for Healthy Families and we’ll have 14 people there," Tomzak said. "The museum throws a party and it’s successful."
Matt Kelly also expressed frustration at the outside agency funding.
"I would suggest that the people who want their taxes raised, that instead of giving that money to the government, give it to a museum or something," Kelly said. "Write a check. We can’t continue this."
There wasn’t agreement on much last night, but there did seem to be a common feeling that the council needs to get a better handle on why and how it gives tax money to non-government groups.
Vice Mayor Kerry Devine asked that the council commit to having a retreat on nonprofit funding.
"We do need a better format," she said. "We do just show up and start bickering about the same stuff every year."
Maybe this year they’ll do something about it.