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Why the hypocrisy?

P&C criticizes County but not the City on distributions to charities out of tax payer funds
Warwick Jones

What is it about the Post & Courier? It seems there is nothing that will provoke its Editorial staff to criticize the City, even if it amounts to hypocrisy. Take the editorial in last Friday’s edition. It dealt with the hand-outs given by Charleston County to charities from tax payer funds.

We have no dispute about the right of the newspaper to criticize the County. We know a lot of folk that hold the same view as the P&C on these handouts. But what gets us, is that the City of Charleston distributes even larger amounts to charities from tax payer funds each year. And the P&C is silent!

A long standing practice
The County has been distributing funds to charities for some years. This and last year, Council members were to distribute a total of $35,000 each to charities of their choosing. Of course all the handouts need to be approved by Council. We don’t know the amounts in previous years but probably they were of similar magnitude.

Why so long to raise the issue?
Last year, the P&C made a fuss about the distributions for the first time. Some of the County Council members expressed unease as well, and in consequence, the Council tightened up the qualifications for applicants and imposed stricter reporting and auditing requirements. But some Council members asked why the P&C was raising the issue. If it were wrong to make distributions, why didn’t the P&C question the practice years ago?

Viewers can see our note published on August 28 relating to County Council’s deliberations on this year’s “Contributions to Outside Agencies”. The final allocations will be determined at the Council meeting this Tuesday evening.

No discussion on City’s distribution
No discussion occurred last year on City Council relating to distributions to charities. We questioned the Mayor at a Council meeting last year about the process. We were told that there is a formal process and a committee that reviews the applications. We won’t dispute this but we have never seen or heard of the review committee. The list of recipients may differ for those of the County but the nature of the recipients looks very similar to those on the County’s list. Indeed some are on both lists. Last year, the City budgeted a total distribution of $510,000. The County’s planned distribution this year is $315,000.

Viewers can see out note published on December 7, 2006 – A Closer look at the City Budget relating to the City’s distributions. The City calls it Assistance Programs. Distributions for this fiscal year have not yet been reported.

If wrong for the County, its wrong for the City!
The P&C has an obligation to point out that if the practice is wrong for the County, it is just as wrong for the City!

The P&C Editorial
Needed internal questioning of Council's charitable giving

Three members of Charleston County Council have it right. As a general rule, tax dollars should go toward the general operation of county government, not to council members' favorite non-profits.

The majority of council, however, apparently is determined not only to continue giving to outside agencies as they have for the past decade, but to maintain a relatively new system for dividing up the credit for the largess. Individual council members are allowed to decide which outside agencies get their one-ninth portion of a $315,000 budget item. That system went into effect after council went to the single-member district system of election several years ago.

Not only did the new system give the allocations a strong odor of personal patronage, but many of the allocations were legally questionable, particularly those that went to neighborhood organizations, special-interest and membership groups or those with religious ties. In fact, it took an embarrassing $500 allocation to a lobbying group that supports reform of drug laws — later returned — to convince council to establish some general donation guidelines. Specifically, it has stipulated that agencies must have a 501(c) non-profit status or be quasi-governmental.

However, there are numerous attorney general opinions on the allocation of public dollars that emphasize they can't be given to outside agencies based on their non-profit status alone. As a general rule, outside agencies that get public dollars should serve a substantial segment of the community and the public purpose should involve a governmental function. That rules out projects that benefit a particular group or neighborhood.

The attorney general also has cautioned that any contribution to a religious group for social services such as feeding programs must be on a contract basis. Requests to council for funding from outside agencies this year totaled some $1.7 million.

Three members of council — Dickie Schweers, Paul Thurmond and Curtis Bostic — acknowledge the pitfalls inherent in giving tax dollars to outside groups and have declined to designate any recipients for the $35,000 each council member is allowed to earmark. Mr. Thurmond, an attorney and new to council, told our reporter this week: 'All the taxpayer money allocated to me is going back to the county; it will be spent on services.'

Also a newcomer to council, Mr. Schweers said he doesn't feel comfortable giving taxpayer dollars for charity. A council veteran, Mr. Bostic, was quoted as saying he isn't convinced it is beneficial for 'County Council to take other people's money, namely our taxpayers' money and require that they give to charities.

Mr.Bostic, an attorney, tells us he has had concerns about council's charitable giving for some time, noting it is a 'dark gray area at best.' The issue, he says, isn't just whether the non-profit agencies are performing a government function, but whether it is a legitimate function of county government. For example, he noted, that it isn't County Council's function to provide school programs — that's the role of the school board. A number of the outside agencies being funded are proposing after-school and summer camp programs.

While all those on the list up for final approval Tuesday may well be fine candidates for private giving, that doesn't mean they meet the criteria to receive public dollars. Here's the list that has council's preliminary approval:
American Red Cross, $15,250; Boys and Girls Clubs of the Trident Area, $1,000; Bridge of Hope, $2,000; Carolina Youth Development Center, $3,000; Center for Heirs Property Preservation, $1,000; Center for Women, $5,000; Charleston Area Senior Citizen Services, $2,000; Charleston County Children's Medical Homes Project, $2,000; Charleston Development Academy Charter School, $2,000; Clemson Extension Services, $2,000; Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy, $8,000; Communities in Schools of the Charleston Area Inc., $3,000; Crisis Ministries, $23,000; Daniel Joseph Jenkins Institute for Children, $4,750; Dee Norton Lowcountry Children's Center, $4,000; Eastside Community Development Corp., $1,000; Emancipation Proclamation Association Inc. (student scholarships), $3,000; Evening of Prayer Ministries (food services), $14,000; Family Recovery Court, $3,000; Father to Father Project, $3,250; Florence Crittenton Program, $2,000; Goodwill Development Center Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival, $2,000; Hospice of Charleston, $3,000; Humanities Foundation, $2,000; Independent Transportation Network, $4,000; Kecia E. Miller Foundation (free mammography screening), $7,000; Lowcountry Crisis Pregnancy Center, $7,000; Lowcountry Food Bank, $6,750; Lowcountry Senior Center, $9,000; Metanoia Community Development Corp., $3,000; My Sister's House, $3,750; New Horizons, $1,000; North Charleston Community Interfaith Shelter, $1,000; Palmetto Project, (health care access), $1,000; Pastors Inc., (anti-drug program), $11,000; Project Read, $2,500; Rein and Shine (equine assisted therapy), $1,000; Lowcountry AIDS, $3,250; S.C. Coalition for Black Voter Participation, $7,000; Special Olympics, $3,500; St. James South Santee Senior and Community Center, $1,000; Sustainability Institute (sustainable homes), $2,000; Trident Literacy Association, $4,000; Vanderhorst Koinonia Ministries, (Road to Success Job Fair), $1,000; YWCA of Greater Charleston, $5,500; Youth Empowerment Services, $7,000; Cannon Street YMCA, $2,000.

Council members may have a 'gentleman's agreement' to approve each others' funding list, but legally all members are responsible for final approval of these outside contributions.

The good work of these agencies isn't the issue. But the legal right of council to make many of these donations is very much in question. At least three members of council recognize that fact and are providing much needed public attention.
Friday, August 31, 2007

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