Despite the best efforts of county supervisors, they continue to spend an inordinate amount of time developing policies designed to eliminate the debate over which charities merit the support of taxpayers’ dollars.
The previous board devised a formula to depoliticize the annual process of dolling out county grant money to nonprofits. That came after supervisors realized they were spending more time figuring out which organizations to give a few thousand dollars to than they were on the funding needs of government services actually under their direct control. The outcome of the exercise was based on which group got the most supporters to speak at public hearings, more than which would provide the most valuable service.
More recently, supervisors have worked to create a system to assure with a greater degree of certainty that the county funds will best meet community needs. Its hallmark was keeping the hands of individual supervisors out of the mix: Set criteria, determine the size of the grant pot, and let a formula decide the winners and losers. That system has fallen short—supervisors are still debating which charities should get more or less funding, and it remains unclear whether the community’s greatest needs are being adequately met.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that the government shouldn’t be giving any tax money away to private organizations. But that assumes that the county is providing adequate services. Through the various economic ups and downs over the years, a philosophy of leaning on public-private partnerships to fill service gaps evolved. As boards of supervisors cut—or failed to expand—some social services, the dependence on community organizations grew. The pot of money supporting those partnerships did not grow at a pace to match the increasing population or the service demand, and in recent years nonprofits have been hit by decreased donations resulting from the recession and a general erosion in the culture of giving. That put the fragile safety net system further out of balance.
So yes, the grant system is in need of a reset; however, the analysis should look beyond the tweaks suggested by the finance committee. This is a good time to assess the breadth of community service needs, including what this Board of Supervisors thinks the government can do better and which nonprofits are best equipped to fill in the gaps. Let’s do more than change the formulas in the spreadsheet.