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Commissioners hear ideas on non-profit funding

Leonardtown, MD -- During the course of two Oct. 27 public hearings the Commissioners of St. Mary’s County heard broad community support for the idea of changing the method of determining county funding for non-profit organizations. Under consideration are an array of options for determining what to fund and how to review funding proposals from non-profits.

Fifteen people spoke at the morning and evening hearings. They represented different non-profit agencies, many of which currently receive funding. In all, 22 agencies received more than $1.3 million in the current fiscal year.

Although the speakers offered support for several of the options for change, the majority who spoke preferred giving county agencies associated with the particular subject matter addressed by the non-profit review and scoring authority.

There also was considerable support for providing an opportunity for new non-profits to get funding. Currently funding is limited to those who are already receiving it.

There also was some discussion by the presenters about the new software system the county has received from the Governor’s Office for Crime Control and Prevention which can be used by the non-profits to support their funding requests. Several speakers from smaller agencies asked for time to get up to speed on the software.

But Executive Director of Southern Maryland Center for Family Advocacy Laura Joyce said, “I like the software personally.” She said her agency has been using it successfully for several years and she offered assistance to those not familiar with it.

Joe Anderson from Vital Community Connectors (VCC), which represents agencies now receiving county funding, said that whatever model is chosen will require assistance from county staff for the non-profits, including training on the software,

The proposals were hammered out by county staff working in conjunction with representatives from VCC and the Non-Profit Institute at the College of Southern Maryland. Anderson said of what was before the commissioners, “It’s a new process. It’s a change and change can be difficult." But Anderson added that the change could be an evolving process. “As the policy matures it will provide a more equitable and transparent means of final decisions.”

Walden-Sierra is by far the largest recipient of county finds, at $340,447.  Chief Operating Officer Gary Lynch said the decisions by the county need to be “data driven,” He noted that his agency’s hotline was more than just answering the phone, but involved referrals from police and referrals to a wide variety of treatment options.

Joyce emphasized the need for a partnership between county government and the non-profits. “We are not adversaries, but a team. Where there are successes, it is done as a team.”

Janice Walthour, representing Unified Communities for Afro-American Contributions (UCAC) and the St. Mary’s County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) expressed preference for a hybrid model for making funding decisions, similar to one now used by Calvert County.

Several speakers, including Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland Executive Director John Hartline and  Robert Randall of Greenwell Foundation cautioned the commissioners not to adopt the model used by Charles County, which has a separate advisory board to make recommendations. Randall said that set up the possibility of conflict of interest with committee members advocating for their own causes.

Several speakers, while liking the system of review by county agencies, cautioned that their agencies could easily fall under several subject categories handled by different government departments. Julie Randall, former commissioner president who now sits on several non-profit boards, said whichever department was responsible for ultimate review should be charged with having a complete understanding of what they were reviewing.

Sotterley Executive Director Nancy Easterling said that the operation of the historic plantation could come under Economic development (as a tourist attraction) or Land Use and Growth management (as a land preservation project).

Easterling asked the commissioners to keep in mind that the non-profits are often asked by other funders if they have the support of the county. He said the little county funding they receive thus is leveraged many times over from other sources.

In previous years the agencies receiving county funding were referred to in the county budget as “Non-County Agencies.” The VCC members have objected to that term. Anderson said at one of their meetings, “We are definitely of the county.” At the morning public hearing Jim Bershon, on the board of soup kitchen St., Mary’s Caring, thanked the commissioners for changing the budget title to “Non-Profit Agencies.”

Bershon said the question may be asked by all as to why the county should be funding non-profit agencies. But he said the $2,000 the county gives to St. Mary’s Caring helps provide a needed community service. Of the funding, he said, “That is exactly what a government does in a civilized society.”

The commissioners are holding the record open for ten days for additional comments either by mail or online. The list of the options under consideration is on the county’s website:  http://www.co.saint-marys.md.us/

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com

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