Commissioner begins politicking for Just Food funding; a look at amounts that nonprofits receive from city and how those are falling

Some people say the art of politics is compromise. I’ve heard others contend the true art is figuring out a good way to ask for money. If so, Lawrence City Hall is full of art these days. It is budget season, and among the groups seeking city funds are the community’s social service agencies. If history is any guide, they won’t be overly successful.

Even though the total amount of money the city gives to social service agencies is a relatively small portion of the city’s overall budget, it gets outsized attention. The funding requests are full of good causes, and the social service agencies have boards full of community leaders who know how to twist the arms of city commissioners.

If you have been on Facebook recently, you perhaps have noticed that City Commissioner Matthew Herbert has taken to politicking for a particular social service agency. Herbert has lent his support and his Facebook page to getting city funding for Just Food, the food bank that has seen a whole host of financial problems since its former director — and Lawrence’s former mayor — Jeremy Farmer allegedly improperly paid himself and failed to remit payroll taxes for the nonprofit organization. (Note: The taxes are paid up now.)

Just Food hasn’t received city funding in the past, but it looks like a good bet that the food bank will receive city dollars in 2017. The city’s Social Services Advisory Board is recommending $5,000 in funding for Just Food. Herbert, however, thinks that is too little. He cites statistics that contend the number of people the food bank is serving during its peak months has more than doubled since 2014. Just Food has asked for about $27,000, which primarily would be used to pay utility costs for the food bank facility, which operates a lot of energy-intensive coolers and freezers.

“An organization that feeds nearly 10,000 people in our community each month being told that $5,000 per year is an appropriate funding from the city,” Herbert writes. “Times are very tight this budget season, and there will be some budgetary choices made that keep me up at night, no doubt. It is my hope, and will be my vote, that we do a little better here.”

So, keep an eye on that one. It may turn into a Picasso or it may be judged a velvet Elvis over the mantel, which I’ve been told in no uncertain terms is not art.

But a more interesting discussion to follow would be one about what role City Hall should play in funding social service agencies in the community. I’m not sure that discussion will happen. Usually, commissioners get pretty focused on the individual funding requests and don’t spend much time on the bigger-picture issue.

Perhaps that is why social service funding levels are falling at City Hall. That may surprise some folks. Lawrence is thought of as a pretty socially conscious community. But I’ve watched the amount of money the city sets aside in its budget for social service agencies consistently fall over the years. Now, there is a caveat. (There is always a caveat, just like there’s always a two-for-one sale on velvet Elvises at any respectable flea market.) The city has provided some special funding, like a loan to the Lawrence Community Shelter and other such groups. That money becomes kind of hard to track year to year. What I’m focusing on is the process the city has used for decades, where it asks nonprofit groups to apply for city funds that are paid either through general property taxes or the city’s share of the statewide liquor tax.

In 2007, the city’s general fund budget — that’s the portion paid for through general taxes — included a little more than $640,000 for social service agencies. In the proposed 2017 budget, there’s $515,000 in general fund dollars for social service agencies. That’s a drop of about 20 percent for the decade, or about 2 percent per year.

Now, it should be noted, that liquor has come to the rescue, at least partially. The city has a fund called the Special Alcohol Fund. So do many houses in the Oread neighborhood, but the city’s is different. This one is named as such because it receives its funding from the city’s share of the special state tax charged on liquor. Funding from that source has increased — albeit slightly — in the last decade. Funding levels proposed for the 2017 budget are $666,000, up from about $642,000 in 2007.

When you add the two sources together, social service agencies have seen their funding levels fall by about $100,000 over the decade. When you factor in inflation, the cut is greater.

But has that been a bad move by the city? That depends on whom you talk to. I’ve heard arguments that perhaps the city should focus less on funding individual agencies and focus more on funding initiatives that can change the underlying issues that create some of the underlying societal problems that the agencies are trying to address. In other words, raise income levels so we’ll have less poverty in the community. The city would argue it is trying to do some of that, but it is easier said than done.

On the other side of the coin, I hear arguments that the city needs to provide more social service funding. You can talk about the big picture all you want, but somebody still needs to feed and house the less fortunate. Folks on that side of the argument point out that charitable giving hasn’t exactly picked up the slack. Here’s an interesting statistic on that front: According to old news articles, the United Way fundraising campaign in 2006-2007 brought in $1.63 million. In 2015-2016, it brought in $1.5 million.

For those of you interested more in the here and now, here is a look at proposed funding levels for agencies in the city’s 2017 budget. City commissioners are expected to finalize the amounts in the coming weeks.

From the city’s general fund:

• Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center: $143,970 vs. $153,208 in 2016

• Big Brothers Big Sisters: $17,637 vs. $17,580

• Boys and Girls Club: $115,978 vs. $119,328

• Communities in Schools: $2,290 vs. $2,280

• Douglas County CASA: $21,520 vs. $22,780

• Douglas County Dental Clinic: $15,000 vs. $15,000

• Health Care Access: $23,331 vs. $24,410

• Heartland Medical Clinic: $31,167 vs. $30,000

• Housing and Credit Counseling: $15,650 vs. $15,580

• Just Food: $5,000 vs. $0

• Lawrence Community Food Alliance: $5,748 vs. $6,830

• Salvation Army bus pass program: $2,375 vs. $0

• Salvation Army Pathway to Hope program: $5,083 vs. $0

• Sexual Trauma and Abuse Care Center: $8,200 vs. $8,200

• Shelter Inc.: $28,575 vs. $29,150

• Success by 6 Coalition: $25,033 vs. $25,050

• Willow Domestic Violence work clothes program: $2,500 vs. $3,640

• Willow Domestic Violence outreach program: $5,500 vs. $5,470

• Van Go. Inc.: $29,460 vs. $31,890

• Warm Hearts: $4,480 vs. $5,470

From the city’s special alcohol fund:

• Ballard Community Services: $16,702 vs. $13,210

• Bert Nash WRAP program: $321,815 vs. $325,000

• Big Brothers Big Sisters: $9,570 vs. $8,710

• Boys and Girls Club: $98,732 vs. $95,710

• DCCCA First Step program: $37,180 vs. $37,180

• DCCCA outpatient program: $93,524 vs. $93,534

• Health Care Access: $6,946 vs. $0

• Hearthstone: $7,000 vs. $7,500

• Heartland Community Health Center: $30,000 vs. $30,000

• Van Go Inc.: $26,273 vs. $26,273

• Willow Domestic Violence Center: $18,618 vs. $17,710