By Eliot Duke
Dunn Daily Record
A split board of Harnett County commissioners on Wednesday, May 26 decided to cut all nonprofit funding for the upcoming budget year.
Commissioners by a 3-2 vote elected not to give money to any of the more than two dozen nonprofit organizations requesting funds from the county in its latest budget proposal. Commissioners Matthew Nicol, Lew Weatherspoon and Board Chairman W. Brooks Matthews outnumbered Mark Johnson and Barbara McKoy in Wednesday’s vote following a contentious meeting where the two sides saw the issue quite differently.
“I can’t speak about the voters in District 1,” Weatherspoon said. “The voters in District 4 elected me to be a good steward of their tax dollars, and this is not being a good steward of taxpayer money. This is pork barrel money in here and I’m opposed to that.”
Commissioners last week sent the proposal back to its nonprofit committee in an effort to streamline some of the increased expenditures and get the total allocations closer to last year’s figures. Nonprofit requests hovered around $83,000 when initially presented and the committee managed to lower the number to $66,750, close to last year’s amount. As the committee tried to trim the list down, some initiatives like the Buddy Backpack Program felt the pinch.
Nicol took issue with the Buddy Backpack Program getting its funding reduced from $7,000 (awarded in 2020) to $5,000 while others he felt were less important didn’t.
“I really personally believe (Buddy Backpack Program) is a good organization to support rather than for instance, no offense Mr. Johnson, but the Dunn history museum,” said Nicol. “There’s a couple other things on here … the Rise and Shine Pitbull Rescue. I understand animals are a touchy subject but I’m going to once again state that children and humans I think should be coming first before we hand out money to animals. I’m not happy with the way this came back, especially after their first proposal. I see a lot of things are lined out, a lot of things were cut, and some other things stayed in that I really don’t think need to be in this budget.”
‘Let taxpayers choose’
As the county struggles to build enough schools to address severe overcrowding at several of its campuses, Nicol said commissioners need to focus on residents and let them make decisions about whether or not they want to donate money to nonprofit organizations.
“It’s been stated many times that we don’t even have the rooftops or the rooftops we have don’t even support enough to put children in the schools,” Nicol said. “Again, let’s focus on Harnett County instead of handing out this money when the taxpayers can go ahead and donate that if they wish. I don’t see why we are allotting their money that comes in when it can be agreed upon that we don’t even have enough of it coming in to educate our children, let alone the other services we’re trying to nickel and dime for the sheriff’s department.”
Weatherspoon suggested the county has a policy in place for funding nonprofits that is not being completely followed. He asked about articles of incorporation, mission statements, organizational charts and community needs, and whether all of this documentation is being provided as it should.
“If we’re not going to follow the policy, we need to either get rid of it or redo it,” said Weatherspoon. “I know there are some that say they’re being used for capital improvements. Why are we funding those?”
‘We did what you asked’
McKoy countered, saying the nonprofit committee addressed all of those concerns during its meeting and came back to commissioners with a reduced list, which is what the board requested.
“Is that not what you asked us to do?” McKoy asked. “We did the best that we could. One of the reasons we gave out more this year than we normally give out is because we had more organizations that applied. We have no control over that. All of these organizations are contributing something to the county and to the needs of the citizens of this county.”
McKoy said she understood wanting to see less money being spent, but any changes made to the county’s funding policy towards nonprofit should be saved for a later date.
“Buddy Backpack is not the only organization to receive a cut,” said McKoy. “The committee made the decision and that’s what you asked the committee to do. I’m proud of what (the committee) has done. My proposal to you is do what you want to do, but it should come from the committee, it should come from the commissioners.
“I took my orders from the acting county manager (George Wood) and I’m proud of what the committee did. I’m asking the commissioners to approve this. If you want to make changes, make changes for next year. I, the commissioners, all of us, make decisions based on the needs of this county, not based on our personal needs. You guys do what you’re going to do. I don’t represent one district, I represent all the citizens of this county.”
Nicol said existing programs that traditionally have received money from commissioners shouldn’t be cut to make room for new ones.
“I don’t see how that’s fair,” Nicol said. “Take care of the ones you have instead of adding more to fund those. Streamline everything then. They had the right to apply but you as a committee did not need to come at us with this and cut other nonprofits.
“I know nonprofits have always been a point of contention. It’s going up, increasing year after year, and it’s been stressed that we have to stop at some point in time. Seeing where the county is right now, financially, and discussing that and trying to come up and cut different costs, I don’t think we’re being proper stewards of the taxpayer money.”
Matthews also expressed reservations about giving taxpayer money to nonprofits and initially supported a scale down approach to the practice before eventually voting to do away with it altogether.
“I would much prefer to see our communities, our civic groups, religious groups, that we have in the county step up and help these organizations as needed,” said Matthews. “Hindsight being 20/20, if we wanted to limit this expense we probably should’ve given the committee a ceiling to stay under this total. I am sure that at this point in the process, we probably have most, if not all, of these organizations who have counted on some type of support from the county. That leaves us where we are today. I understand the sentiment on both sides. At the same time, we did not give our committee a ceiling amount to work with. We asked them to look at this again when the amount was considerably higher than what was given last year.”
A disappointing surprise
McKoy reiterated her point about forgoing any nonprofit funding decisions until the next budget.
“If we have to make any more changes, we need to concentrate on making those changes and review our bylaws next year,” McKoy said. “I feel like the committee met the obligation you all wanted us to do. I agree with you that we have to do a better job of streamlining these organizations. We did what you asked us to do, and it is what it is.”
Johnson, who also serves as vice president of the Dunn Area History Museum, one of the nonprofits Nicol specifically named when talking about unwarranted funding, kept quiet during the meeting and struggled to hide his disappointment as the proceedings went along.
“I was very surprised and disappointed on the outcome after all of the hard work that the seven committee members put into the nonprofit funding,” Johnson told The Daily Record after the meeting. “The result is all nonprofit committees applying for assistance were denied any monetary assistance from the county at all.”
The nonprofit committee withered a list of 28 applicants down to 23, before commissioners cut it down to zero.