Nonprofit organizations, including Safeplace, Child Care Action Council, CHOICE Regional Health Network and Together, could take a financial hit next year if Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater and Thurston County officials reduce or eliminate funding for the Human Services Review Council.
In many ways the HSRC is the thread that knits this community’s social service safety net together. Reducing funding for pivotal programs that help troubled kids, frail seniors, struggling students and moms who are victims of domestic violence is shortsighted.
One key role of government is to serve those in need. And we, as a civilized society, have a collective responsibility to feed the hungry, to reach out to those in need and take care of those teetering on the edges of life. The dollars we invest in prevention activities – serving the mentally ill or newborns or senior citizens – literally save lives and prevent other government expenditures such as hiring more cops and juvenile detention councilors, building bigger county jails and state prisons.
Yet the social service safety net in South Sound is in danger. City and county budget writers – who are coping with shrinking revenue and horrible budget challenges – have notified the executive directors of nonprofit organizations that funding for 2010 is “uncertain.”
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Shouldn’t funding for integral social services be at the top of the priority list, not at the bottom? Shouldn’t programs that hide women and children from their abusers be a higher priority than, say, a new traffic light? Shouldn’t the after-school program serving 80 kids in one of the poorest apartment complexes in South Sound be considered for funding before preserving the job of a community planner? Shouldn’t the senior nutrition program and the Keystone Crisis Nursery – crucial programs that serve people at the opposite ends of life – merit consideration before pothole repairs and dog parks?
QUALITY OF LIFE
The funding decisions of elected officials must reflect community values. If not, then what does that say about the quality of life and the moral makeup of our precious South Sound community?
Make no mistake, city and county budget writers are in a terrible predicament. They have cut budgets repeatedly in recent months. They have had to make difficult decisions – to fire staff members, to close entire departments and to scale back public services. The decision makers have a thankless job, yet have performed admirably given the economic recession and the dollars available to them.
There is no way to cut millions of dollars from government budgets without inflicting pain. But surely they understand that without the excellent work of the nonprofit agencies in this community – agencies that do the tough work cheaper than government ever could – city and county budget woes would be much worse?
The old saying, “Pay me now, or pay me later,” definitely applies. What are the costs down the line when we close that after-school program where kids have fun, build their social skills and get help with their homework? Those unsupervised youngsters are far more likely to get into trouble – to break the law and succumb to drugs and alcohol – than if they were engaged in positive activities with role models helping to transform them into contributing members of society. Costs to taxpayers magnify when wayward kids enter the criminal justice system. So we can pay a little now, or a lot later.
In the late 1970s, local council members were overwhelmed with requests for funding by nonprofit agencies. Executive directors had to make their pitch to all three city councils and the county commission. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes they were not.
In 1982, elected officials from the three cities and the county entered into an intergovernmental agreement to pool their resources. They created the Human Services Review Council – a joint committee that could weigh community priorities as a whole and make funding recommendations. While there are periodic disagreements with the HSRC recommendations for funding, the system is a good one.
It works well because the HSRC is able to take a broad view of community needs and establish a “big picture” list of priorities. It also works well for the public, because the final funding decisions are made by elected officials who are directly accountable to the public.
Funding for the HSRC has fallen from $391,000 last year to $279,000 this year with the county contributing no money. Yet now, the three councils and county commission have written a four-paragraph note to nonprofit directors saying funding for next year is “uncertain” and that funding decisions are therefore being delayed.
Understandably, nonprofit directors on edge.
They use those government dollars to leverage grants and other sources of money.
The CHOICE Regional Health Network, for example, uses its $20,000 HSRC grant to help leverage $380,000 in grants that result in about $1 million worth of care provided by health care professionals to mentally ill men, women and children.
The $279,000 provided by the HSRC leads to millions of dollars in services to the poor, the elderly, at-risk kids, the mentally ill, and others living in peril.
As elected officials adopt their 2010 spending plans, they must understand that their budget documents are more than a statement of finances. Yes, budgets set priorities, but they are also a statement of community beliefs and values. This community has a long history of comforting the afflicted, caring for the vulnerable, supporting the poor, helping the infirm and offering hope to the hopeless.
County and city budget writers must not back away from those community values.