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County Council, September 18

Council to stop annual distributions to charities
But may attempt to “find a better way”
Warwick Jones

The annual giving to charities by the County Council will stop after the distribution this fiscal year. The distribution to “Outside Agencies” has been made for more than 20 years but in the last 2 years has been frequently criticized – that some recipients were not properly qualified and that individual Council members should not choose the recipients. Last year, Council adopted tighter conditions for the process. But these were not enough to stem the criticism, particularly from the two new Council members. Council voted last night, 6 to 3, to end the practice with only Council members Darby, Pryor and Inabinett opposed to the cessation.

Staff to look at issue
But Council may address the issue again in a different form. Members who voted for the cessation were opposed to the present procedure, but not all were opposed to contributions to charities. Chairman Scott asked staff to take a look at the situation. Could “public purpose” be defined and the qualifications of applicants better defined to meet the “public purpose”? There was no motion in support of his request so we are not sure where it will go or the end result.

The attitude of each Council member on the issue was pretty clear. Council members Thurmond, Schweers and Bostic were opposed to the distributions and Council members Darby, Pryor and Inabinett were in favor of the continuation of the practice. The other three members were in the middle – wanting to be more selective in choosing the beneficiaries and or taking the choice of recipients out of the hands of individual Council members.

This fiscal year, Council was to distribute $315,000 to Outside Agencies. However, Council members Thurmond, Schweers and Bostic refused to make allocations so only $210,000 was slated for distribution.

Chairman Scott suggests an Outside Agency could handle process
Chairman Scott opened the discussion on the issue at the special meeting of the Finance Committee. He outlined some alternatives open to the County and suggested the option of handing the distribution to charities to the Grants Department or to an outside agency such as the Trident United Way.

Predictable arguments
Thereafter the debate got underway with predictable arguments – predictable because the issue has been debated more times over the last 2 years than this writer can remember. Those arguing for the cessation of the practice called into question whether the Council should be in the business of transferring tax payer money to charities. This was best left to individuals themselves, they said. And although the charities may well have done good works with the funds, did the spending meet the test of “public purpose”? The opponents of cessation argued that the practice had existed for over 20 years and had only been questioned with the advent of single-member districts. Up until 3 years ago, distributions largely bypassed the African-American communities. This distorted allocation has since been corrected but has drawn criticism. As well, the charities often did work that otherwise the County would need to do. The Crisis Ministries and the Low Country Food Bank were two entities frequently cited. Both gathered donations from the private sector and were saving tax payers’ money.

Who are Outside agencies?
Council member Darby confessed to exhaustion over the issue and declared that he would support the cessation of contributions to all Outside Agencies to get rid of the issue. Predictably, another Council member made a motion to cease all Outside Agency contributions and it was quickly seconded. It took a while for Council to realize what had been proposed. But it achieved Council member Darby’s purpose - to draw attention to the support Council was giving to Outside Agencies beyond those in the annual giving. A vote denying outside agency contributions would have stopped the Council from financially supporting such agencies such as the SPCA and perhaps CARTA (CARTA has sales tax funding and this would remain intact most likely). But the Council member made his point – Outside Agencies embraced a much larger list than those on the annual giving. Why weren’t the others receiving scrutiny? The motion was changed to apply only to the annual giving.

No enthusiasm for Grants Department to play a role
Although the suggestion of passing the initiative to the County Grants Department seemed reasonable, it had little appeal to the County Administrator or some Council members. The County Administrator said the Grants Department had a full plate. The business of vetting Outside Agency applicants would be very burdensome. More money could be spent in researching candidates than the amounts of the grant. The Grant Department may have expertise, but it is relation to major outside agencies, not the myriad of small agencies that made up this and last years’ lists.

“Let’s find a better way”
Summing up after the Council session, Chairman Scott commented that the Outside Agencies issue only threatened to get bigger. Presumably he was satisfied that the issue was at last resolved. But he quoted Council member Bostic as he made his request to Staff, “Let’s find a better way”.