Special appropriations cutbacks: What doesn’t kill you…


JeffKeeling_webColorAmong the tales of woe inspired by the beginning of Johnson City’s fiscal 2015 budget discussions are a couple dozen related to recipients of a particular form of municipal largesse known as “special appropriations.” A preliminary letter sent May 21 warned those recipients that – at least in the city staff’s recommended budget for the year beginning July 1 – their jars of honey would not be forthcoming.

The budgeted amounts for these groups range from a high of $40,019 for Frontier Health to a low of $3,384 for Sister Cities International, and they average $14,718. The groups are fine organizations doing worthwhile things, including work ranging from the arts to health care, from social services to youth development, and from athletics to elder services.

It is arguable, though, that none of them ever should have received city tax funds. And I would challenge anyone to dispute the assertion that our community has at least 25 other great agencies, doing great and similar work, that are just as deserving of special appropriations from the city.

The picking of winners and losers among the area’s non-profit community never was the best idea. Land mines aplenty accompany the selection by elected city leaders of some worthy causes and the rejection of others, and unfortunate habits, once begun, can become politically and personally difficult to break.

And yet, like a smoker cutting back on cigarettes or a federal government “tapering” back the printing of money that it has used to purchase bonds, Johnson City had begun three budgets ago to decrease its special appropriations by 10 percent of the FY 2012 level each year. The end game was to completely wean the recipients off of a portion of their revenues that city commissioners said should be funded some other way.

If memory serves me correctly, it was mentioned even then that this weaning might be accelerated. Regardless, the process up to now has reduced the annual appropriation from $524,486 in fiscal 2011 to $367,954 in fiscal 2014.

If the cold turkey method floated in the staff’s budget proposal becomes reality, that figure hits zero in next year’s July 2014-June 2015 budget. I’m betting we don’t go there, but I won’t shed any tears if we do, despite the sympathy I feel for friends whose passion about their favorite agencies has them distressed about this prospect.

The sooner we extricate ourselves from the practice of special appropriations, the better. Here are a few points:

If your agency is worthy of a $200,000 budget and $8,000 of that has come from city taxpayers, and if that funding method is deemed to be ill-advised and inequitable, then I am confident those who are passionate about your agency’s mission will make up the shortfall.

If Coalition for Kids, why not Rise Up? If Girls Inc., why not Girls on the Run? If Tipton-Haynes Historical Association, why not Rocky Mount? Why $11,520 for Second Harvest Food Bank and just $8,181 for Good Samaritan?

If one accepts the premise (and I don’t) that taxpayer money should be arbitrarily given to private agencies because they do good things for people, then arguments in favor of special appropriations could quickly lead the total bill into the $1 million range.

I like art, sports, aiding the needy and healing the sick. The people of our community do an admirable job of these things by volunteering their time, money and talents to the agencies who could lose this revenue stream.

Imagine all of this community’s agencies as horses – fine, strong, beautiful and capable of accomplishing good work in a way that is pleasing to observe and that glorifies God. If some of those horses are made to find all of their nourishment independently among the open pastures while others are receiving some extra sustenance without having to work as hard for it, which horses are going to be stronger in the end?

If you really love your horse, and you believe it is inherently a beautiful, useful, admirable creature, don’t you want it to get its nourishment in a manner that keeps it as strong as possible for the long run? Because it’s a long run, that’s for sure.



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