In the current century – the 21st one, that is – there are two things that Guilford County government has tried incredibly hard to do but has never been able to: (1) get a kiddie train running at Northeast Park, and (2) bring some rationality to the method by which the county hands out taxpayer money to non-profits and economic development groups each June when the county adopts its annual budget.

After more than a decade of effort and blowing through roughly $700,000 in taxpayer money, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners has given up on the kiddie train known as “the Little Engine That Couldn’t.” However, county officials are still hopeful that they can bring reason to the non-profit funding process.

In 2022, Guilford County Budget Director Toy Beeninga has been assigned that task. He’s currently developing a set of guidelines to be adopted by the board with the goal of bringing reason and consistency to the non-profit and economic development group funding process.

The reason it’s so difficult to do is that, over the years, many Guilford  County commissioners have had their “pet non-profits” – more commonly called “pet projects’ – that they wanted funded.  For instance, each year, the late Commissioner Carolyn Coleman wanted to see money in the county budget for the African American Atelier which is an art gallery.  Many other commissioners have also had their favorite organizations to fund, which have been added at budget time even if the organization hadn’t, say, completed audit requirements or gotten their applications in before the deadline.

Often, a commissioner’s vote for a budget has been needed and that vote has hinged on funding for a non-profit the commissioner favors.

Former Guilford County Commissioner Paul Gibson, years ago, said that it was so strange to him that, at budget time each year, non-profit and community-based organization funding made up about one percent of the county budget, but the debates on the funding took up 80 percent of the discussion time.

About 15 years ago, the commissioners held a grueling series of four- and five-hour work sessions and brought in “facilitators” from the UNC School of Government to help develop a rational funding process.  The board adopted a policy, but that same year, at budget time, they threw it out the window and just went back to funding whatever haphazard programs the individual commissioners wanted in there whether they met the adopted criteria or not.

Beeninga is now the point man giving it the old college try.

The history of the county’s current policy, he said, has undergone changes over the last seven years.

The funding used to be made up of two camps: community-based organizations and economic development groups.

“At a point in time a number of years ago,” Beeninga told the commissioners at a December work session, “those processes were merged together and human service funding was phased out by prior boards and that has come back in over the last two years, and so we want to talk about that process and make sure that we’re aligned with your principals and guidelines as we think about next year’s process.”

Interestingly, the human services funding was never really done away with – instead, if a commissioner wanted a human service organization included in the budget, the organization was just redefined as an “economic development” organization.  For example, when pressed, the commissioners in support of funding for a summer art camp for needy kids made the claim that that made the community better and therefore helped bring economic development.

The budget director said that new guidelines could include things like audit requirements, financial oversight efforts, the elimination of some barriers to applying and improved communication about the application process.

County staff have looked at Mecklenburg County, Wake County, the City of Charlotte, the City of Winston-Salem and other local governments in the state to see how they “reviewed applications to affirm the public purpose requirement in state law.”

Current Guilford County policy calls for any organization funded more than $10,000 to complete an audit performed by a CPA.  However, the budget director noted, that may be a barrier to application for some smaller organizations that otherwise wouldn’t have to pay for an audit.

There’s no one rule for the benchmark communities studied, he added.  In the case of one local government, for instance, an audit was required only if the organization was already completing an audit for other funding purposes.

Beeninga pointed out that there are multiple levels of review between requiring nothing at all and requiring a certified audit.

He said the amount of financial oversight was a matter of “the board’s risk tolerance.”

In the past, for instance, Guilford County gave money to a non-profit that went bankrupt and the county couldn’t get the money back. Proper financial oversight beforehand could have prevented that from happening, Beeninga said.