The city of Solvang sends out notices in February informing charitable organizations of a March deadline for submitting funding requests.
The requests roll in. City officials then give each organization an opportunity to make its case before the City Council, justifying the need for the city’s dollars.
It is a process that is played out, more or less, in most cities. And it’s not easy for elected officials to make the final call.
The difficulty lies in deciding which agencies are more needful, and in separating requests that are general in nature, from those that will use the funds to the direct benefit of those actually paying the bills — the city’s taxpayers.
This process has played out over the years, and as Solvang has grown, so have requests from nonprofit organizations for funding. In fact, this past year the city handed more than $400,000, which is twice what has been meted out in previous years.
This almost exponential increase in funding requests has set off alarm bells with city administrators and elected officials. This time around, during discussions at a recent council meeting, some hard decisions seem to be in the offing.
For one thing, the council majority seems to be of the opinion that local dollars should be spent locally, which indicates the council’s willingness to say no to agencies whose work is mostly accomplished outside the city of Solvang.
The council also directed staff to revise the city’s grant-funding policy, to place a funding cap at 3 percent of the general fund for all local nonprofit agencies — except the Solvang Conference and Visitors Bureau, library and Solvang Chamber of Commerce, agencies critical to Solvang’s crucial tourism industry.
But no matter how you slice the pie, the final decisions are up to council members, and for some it’s purely a judgment call.
For example, council member Joan Jamieson leans toward favoring only strictly-local charities, at the possible expense of larger nonprofits such as United Way, whose work is more countywide.
But for council member Karen Waite, funding priority should be based on need, not necessarily what that organization contributes to the community, but “an organization within the community that is in need.”
The cap scheme may not work. As the area grows, the need for charitable services is likely to grow correspondingly, and most of those agencies can make a logical, compelling case for why they should be favored with city dollars.
For city staff, it’s all about fiscal responsibility. Administrative Services Director Sandra Featherson expressed concerns about the process, saying she believes the application process can be refined, and made more specific, which would force agencies to be more specific about their intended uses of the city funds.
That seems a reasonable approach. For too many years local governments were rolling in money, but those days are long gone — and likely never to be seen again. Today’s government operations are performed within limited budgets — when possible — with not enough money to go around and fulfill all the community’s real needs. Too many jurisdictions try to borrow their way out of such a dilemma, to the detriment of future generations of taxpayers.
Nonprofits do great work in our Valley, and we have acknowledged that fact many times in this space over the years. But there is a point beyond which public dollars should not go, and perhaps Solvang has reached such a point.
The council will decide how this will play out, but our guess is the next session of nonprofit managers explaining why they need city dollars will be quite specific.