In the first round of Franklin County town meetings, nonprofits seeking community funding did not fare well.
In Strong, United Methodist Economic Ministry, which runs a local food pantry, was granted $1,500 while six other groups were voted down for $2,850 in funding. With a split vote in Farmington, the Board of Selectmen removed the option of voters funding two nonprofits that were granted $7,000 in the previous year.
In a tight budget year with declining state revenue, nonprofits are finding they’re often the first on the budget chopping block.
Jennifer Gaylord, branch manager for Red Cross United Valley, said that to cut costs this year her organization has sent more volunteers and fewer paid staff to speak at the 150 town meetings that their branch asks for money. She said the group, which provides disaster preparedness and response, does not get any state or federal funding, so the town money is important for their bottom line.
The American Red Cross was one of the few nonprofits to be granted funding by New Sharon, but not before voters asked Gaylord a series of questions about their finances and services.
“It’s awesome that they (New Sharon voters) have so many questions, but that can be very intimidating to a volunteer who is not used to answering questions in front of a lot of people,” she said.
Community organizations generally make up small portions of municipal budgets, but tend to generate lengthy debate by townspeople over how much to fund them or whether to fund them at all.
Residents and town officials in favor of funding the groups often cite proactive or poverty fighting services provided by the groups and note that without the organizations, the government might be called upon to provide those same services at full cost. But as budgets get tighter and state aid to towns and schools decline, more local officials are questioning whether to give money to the groups while cutting other departments or services.
Some selectmen philosophically disagree with compelling residents to grant money to nonprofits and feel it should be a personal choice to donate. In Phillips, the selectmen last year recommended not funding any social agencies with town money for that reason.
New Sharon Selectwoman Lorna Nichols said at the annual meeting that the American Red Cross was double dipping from some residents who privately donated and then also paid for donations through their property taxes.
By state law, municipalities are allowed to give money to nonprofits as long as their group serves a “public purpose,” said Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, which advocates for town and city governments.
“It’s fairly common for a snowmobile club to come to the town and ask for funding, and that would fall under a â€˜public purpose’ as long as the public could use those trails,” Conrad said.
He said as the state’s municipal revenue sharing program continues to dwindle, Maine towns have been under more pressure to fund fewer nonprofit groups.
“Certainly in the last four or five years, the trend has been nonprofits’ requests are getting scrutinized more closely than when the economy was better and state funding was where it by law should be,” he said.
Conrad said everything from road maintenance to snow tires for the snowplows are being considered as possible cuts, so it’s not surprising that funding for social service groups is not being included in budgets.
“It might not be much money, but it does add up if people were looking at it more closely,” he said.
The scrutiny has sometimes brought with it increasingly elaborate processes for getting approved for funding, with each process differing for each town. The groups write letters, fill out applications or petitions or send representatives to appear before both the budget committee and the board of selectmen.
In Rumford, representatives from the groups appear before town officials four times in the budget process. New Sharon residents voted down organizations that did not send an in-person volunteer to request the funds and explain where the money goes.
Gaylord, of the Red Cross, said other nonprofit groups try to help each other navigate the system, pointing out to each other when certain towns change their process or give a heads up that one might have stopped accepting outside groups for the warrant.
“Sometimes we just don’t have the ability to follow up,” she said. “Without fail, we miss some meetings.”
Kim Preble, fundraiser and volunteer coordinator for Safe Voices, which provides education and advocacy for domestic violence victims, said that when they are not granted money by some towns, they don’t see town officials debating whether or not the group is doing good work.
“It’s not that the towns don’t support what the nonprofits stand for, but they have to meet their bottom line,” she said.
The organization has steadily received about $30,000 from the towns, but its request for $1,000 from New Sharon was voted down, and the agency was removed from the warrant in Farmington this year and instructed to go to the county for money. However, Preble said they are not allowed under Franklin County rules to go to both the county and the towns for money. She said they continued asking the towns for money this year because of their history of getting money from the towns.
Preble said Safe Voices’ Farmington branch is the agency’s second busiest office, and if they don’t get their funding, they can’t curb their service to the county. Instead they try to close any budget gaps with fundraising and private donations.
“Just because the funding might go away doesn’t mean people don’t need our services,” she said.
Kennebec Behavioral Health spokesman George Myers said that when funding goes down, the needs also go up for his organization, which serves uninsured and underinsured mental health patients.
Towns make smaller allocations when other revenues, like those from the state, are less than what was expected.
“That results, of course, in towns making smaller allocations to those of us who provide direct and often uncompensated care to their residents,” Myers said.
Community Concepts, which had gone to towns in the past for funding, tried asking Franklin County for money this year, but the county has an unofficial policy of not adding new organizations to its lists.
Joan Churchill, resource development director for Community Concepts, said commissioners recommended against granting their request, but the final decision won’t be made until the end of the process in June.
She said they seek $55,000 from municipalities. She said their organization knows from their work in the community that the tax base is made up of people on fixed incomes, and they’re grateful for whatever money comes through.
“It’s a different world pre-2009 than post-2009,” she said.
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252 firstname.lastname@example.org