Nonprofit’s might not make profits, but they do need to get money from somewhere – and, for many hopeful organizations each summer, that somewhere is Guilford County government.
Every year at budget time, local organizations that promote arts and culture, put on the High Point furniture market or the North Carolina Folk Festival, or even sell groceries, come to Guilford County hands out, palms up to see if the county can spare some money – and a lot more than a dime too.
Late last month, the Board of Commissioners heard County Manager Marty Lawing’s proposed budget for 2018-2019, including his recommendations for nonprofit funding. And now it’s all up to the commissioners. Former Guilford County Commissioner Paul Gibson used to comment frequently on how the funding for nonprofit groups – often called “Community-based organizations” or “CBO’s” – made up less than 1 percent of the county’s budget but took up more than 90 percent of the budget talk time.
The arts, cultural and economic development groups that get commissioner approval for taxpayer money are often called the commissioners’ “pet projects” because hundreds of nonprofits do good work in the county but only a small fraction get funding. In recent years, the commissioners have cut out much of that funding and brought some modicum of rationality into the funding process. However, in the end, it always comes down to whatever a majority of county commissioners are willing to support.
That was very evident last June when the board, out of the blue at the 11th hour, added $25,000 in county money for the Renaissance Community Co-op to help the group fund its grocery store in east Greensboro. This year, the county manager’s budget doesn’t recommend using any taxpayer money to fund that cause again, but commissioners will do what the commissioners will do. Renaissance has requested $25,000 again.
Though Renaissance isn’t included in the county manager’s proposed budget, plenty of nonprofits are. For instance, the budget offers $20,000 in taxpayer money to the Friends of John Coltrane, the group that puts on the John Coltrane Jazz & Blues Festival in High Point each year. The organization requested $40,000 in county funds for 2018-2019 but the $20,000 Lawing proposes would keep the Coltrane funding at the same level as last year.
Three other groups that promote arts and culture and usually get county money are the High Point Arts Council, the United Arts Council of Greensboro and the North Carolina Folk Festival. This year the High Point Arts Council requested $55,000, which is $5,000 more than it got last year and $5,000 more than the $50,000 Lawing recommends in the new budget. Lawing proposed that the United Arts Council of Greensboro get $55,000 in the 2018-2019 county budget, the same amount the group got last year and the amount it requested this year. The North Carolina Folk Festival requested $75,000 this year, but Lawing’s budget only recommends $25,000, the amount the county contributed for the festival last year.
Every year, the county gives taxpayer money to the African American Atelier – a downtown Greensboro art gallery founded by 12th District Congresswoman Alma Adams, who moved to Charlotte after the 2016 redistricting put the 12th District totally in Mecklenburg County. Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, a good friend of Adams, pushes for that funding each year. The atelier requested $60,000 in county funding this year and the manager’s proposed budget calls for $50,000.
Those groups are all likely to get some money again this year in the final budget, unlike many other nonprofits that also promote the arts, bring business to the county and help make it a better place to live. So it’s hard to see why some groups are chosen over others for county funding.
Commissioner Hank Henning said that, if it were up to him, the county wouldn’t be in the business of handing out money to nonprofits. He added that the current process by which it is done is a mess.
“It’s complicated, it’s subjective, it’s arbitrary and there is no true measurement of impact,” Henning said.
He has voted in the past to approve county budgets with nonprofit funding in them, but he said that, if it were up to him, the money wouldn’t be in there.
“It’s not my money – it’s the people’s money,” Henning said.
He added that citizens should be supportive of organizations that do good work in the community, but that doesn’t mean the commissioners should provide taxpayer money to those groups.
“It is just not the function of government – but that is not to say anything negative about the ones that do get funded,” Henning said. “Our job is to make sure that the core functions of government get done.”
He said budgets are tight and the Republican board isn’t going to simply raise taxes and put that burden on the taxpayers, and that government should be focused on funding services like public health, education, law enforcement and economic development.
Commissioner Justin Conrad said that every year the county budget is a result of a compromise and that means commissioners end up accepting some things they don’t like in exchange for some they do. He said he’s voted for budgets that fund nonprofits but only because he got some things he wanted, like tax cuts and funding for more school nurses.
Conrad said the nonprofit groups are very deserving, but it’s not the place of the county commissioners to pick certain groups over others and dole out taxpayer money to some.
“There are so many groups that do such incredible work. How are we going to pick one over the other?” Conrad asked.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips said he thinks that, in many cases, Guilford County does get a good deal back from the money it allocates to some of the nonprofits. He said the question should come down to whether the groups getting money truly do provide a tangible return in terms of economic development for the community.
“I think the bottom line is this: Do the metrics, the outcomes – when you really look under the hood – warrant it in terms of economic development?” Phillips said.
He said the Piedmont Triad Film Commission is one example of a group that asks for the money using “facts on paper with outcomes that are based on economic development impact.”
The Film Commission helps convince movie and television productions to film in this area and spend their money here. The commission got $25,000 last year in county funding. The application for funds in 2018-2019 came in just after the deadline, so it’s not clear if the group will get county money again or how much. Lawing’s budget doesn’t propose any money for the Film Commission.
Phillips, who has served as chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said he knows the difficulties of getting at least five – and hopefully nine votes – for a budget. Like Conrad, Phillips said there are political realities that always factor in.
“In the end, nobody is perfectly happy,” he said of the adopted budget.
Phillips added that the number of groups funded has been reduced in recent years.
“I think we’ve done a solid job of paring back,” he said.
Phillips added that the board has to weigh the benefits of funding nonprofits against other worthy ends, such as meeting schools’ needs, providing adequate foster care programs and delivering many other vital services.
Commissioner Skip Alston, a Democrat who has voted on 20 Guilford County budgets in his political career, said the money that goes to many nonprofits benefits the community and brings in jobs.
He said he would be talking with the Renaissance Community Co-op about the group’s needs this year.
“I’m going to see where they are,” Alston said of the co-op that was established to serve an area many consider a “food desert.”
The man who will be in charge of all of this is Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Alan Branson, who made the same point this week that Gibson made years ago.
“That’s one of the most talked about pieces of the budget but it’s for a little pile of money,” Branson said, referring to the fact that it’s a very small percentage of the $616 million proposed budget. “Is this what government was created for? I don’t think so.”
Overall, cultural groups and economic development agencies requested $950,000 this year in county funds and Lawing proposed funding $575,000 of that total.
Branson added that there’s always an effort to get members of both parties to back the budget and that calls for extra horse-trading.
“A unanimous vote sends a message to the county as a whole that everyone is trying to work together,” he said.
That said, Branson added, his first goal is to get a fiscally responsible budget passed and if that costs some votes it’s not a necessity to have everyone on board.
In the budget, the nonprofits are all included under the category of “Economic Development Organization Funding.” The reasoning is that having a rich cultural experience in a community draws visitors to the area, supports local businesses and makes people more likely to choose to live here.
The economic development groups that also fall under this category probably have an easier time making that case; and there are plenty of those groups that come to the county for money each year.
Downtown Greensboro Inc. requested $40,000 in the county’s 2018-2019 budget and that’s what the manager recommended as well. East Market Street Development Corp., which has requested $35,000, is recommended to get the same $20,000 it got in the 2017-2018 budget. The Greensboro Chamber of Commerce and High Point Economic Development Corp. each requested $100,000, as they got last year, and Lawing recommended they get the same amount in the new budget.
The High Point Market Authority received $75,000 last year and requested $150,000 in the 2018-2019 budget, but Lawing recommended $75,000. The Guilford County Tourism Development Authority requested $40,000 and Lawing recommended the group get it.
Two economic development oriented groups requested money but got zero from the county manager in his budget. The Greensboro Community Development Fund asked for $150,000 and the Southwest Renewal Foundation of High Point requested $25,000 in county money.
One highly surprising and very welcome move this year came from the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance (GCEDA). The organization usually gets $100,000 from Guilford County in the budget but this year GCEDA didn’t request a dime. It is likely the first time in Guilford County history that an agency that would get funding if it had asked, didn’t request any money.