By Jeff Keeling
The ghost of city-funded “special appropriations” rattled its chains at the last Johnson City Commission meeting. Pity it didn’t stay silent for good after commissioners last June ended the practice of special appropriations starting with this fiscal year’s budget.
Quietly, with no separate vote and on the consent agenda, commissioners appropriated $10,000 for the Blue Plum Festival and another $5,000 for the Umoja festival.
The problem with these relatively small appropriations is not that Blue Plum or Umoja are undeserving of support. Both festivals are positive additions to the city. Nor can I quibble, much, with the (identical) justification from city administration provided for each proposal: “This event is a significant addition to the activities in the downtown area, bringing thousands of festival-goers that support downtown businesses.”
Such a defense of reversing course for two groups, though, may ring hollow for supporters of Girls Inc., Johnson City Area Arts Council, Good Samaritan Ministries, or the 20 other groups whose funding ceased last June along with Blue Plum and Umoja’s. I daresay each of them could craft a compelling one-line justification for having their organization’s funding restored.
Of course, with that defense buried in the consent agenda, most of these groups probably don’t yet know that, to borrow a line from George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm,’ “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Considered in isolation, these appropriations can arguably be justified as worthwhile small investments of city dollars with the prospect of a significant return. But they haven’t occurred in a vacuum, and that’s why I believe their approval sets a regrettable precedent.
Last May, during a particularly difficult budget year, the city informed the 25 recipients that had been receiving annual special appropriations it was ending that practice.
At that time, I used this space to argue that the practice of special appropriations was an ill-advised use of taxpayer funds. It is arbitrary (some worthy causes get funded, other equally deserving ones do not) and it can encourage recipients to rely on the public purse when they would be better served raising funds in the private sector or through specific grants. The column is online at jcnewsandneighbor.com/specialappropriations.
The recipients already had received fair warning Johnson City planned to sunset this practice. In 2011, the commission tapered appropriations back 10 percent for fiscal 2012, then repeated the cuts the next two years. From $524,486 in FY 2011, the total appropriated had diminished to $367,954 in FY 2014.
Then came the fiscal 2015 budget, and though my column predicted commissioners would fold and provide some level of special appropriations funding, they held firm against an onslaught of criticism and made the difficult, but in my opinion, proper decision.
In the intervening 10 months, I suspect the affected organizations have adapted and carried on. I hope they have succeeded in replacing the lost public tax dollars with money from some more appropriate revenue source.
Somewhere along the way, the folks in the city administration decided it was right and proper to recommend that two of the 25 organizations get some money. Blue Plum’s $10,000 compares to $14,674 it received in FY 2014, Umoja’s $5,000 compares to $5,760 it got the same year. You can view the organizations and their appropriation levels from FY 2009 through FY 2014 at jcnewsandneighbor.com/appropriationamounts.
I expect commissioners believe the economic impact of these two festivals sets them apart from the other former appropriations recipients in some special way. (I guess that would make them “special special appropriations.”)
If so, commissioners should have discussed these points during a meeting, because one could certainly be forgiven for suspecting this issue’s placement on the consent agenda was designed to keep the whole thing quiet.
I still believe eliminating special appropriations last year was the right and fair decision, despite the short-term difficulty it created. I guarantee Girls on the Run would have been happy with 20 percent of the $85,050 Girls Incorporated received as its appropriations shrunk annually between FY 2012 and FY 2014, but that wouldn’t have been fair, either.
If the two festivals inhabit a different category than all the rest, city funding for them should take a different form, with a clear accompanying explanation as to why they’re receiving it.
Here is a final guarantee: If the absence of $10,000 or $5,000 of city funds truly threatened organizers’ ability to hold Blue Plum or Umoja this year (which I highly doubt), people and businesses in the community would have made up the difference out of their own pockets.
Instead, I await the outcry from those 23 groups who for whatever reason didn’t rate inclusion in this reversal of fortune. I can hardly blame them.