Two nonprofit organizations have approached the Bar Harbor Town Council for major increases in funding this year. The Jesup Library, which hasn’t asked for an increase in decades, desires to go from $20,257 to $75,000.
The Mount Desert Island YMCA is seeking to increase its town subsidy from $48,812 to $100,000. It last pushed through a 100 percent increase in town subsidy at a town meeting a decade ago.
And in a tactic not seen in years past, both organizations also are asking for funding to be increased again next year by another $50,000 or so, pushing their subsidies well past $100,000 annually. Certainly, there should be no illusion on the part of these organizations that passage of an increase this year brings with it tacit approval of fat checks next year as well. No town meeting can tie the hands of a future session in such a fashion, nor is it appropriate to expect it to do so.
During budget discussions last week, town councilors talked about the importance of considering each large increase request as equal. For discussion purposes, the preliminary increase currently being discussed for each agency is $25,000. While doing so for early budgeting purposes may be the fairest route, in the end, each request has to stand before taxpayers on its own merits when it gets to town meeting.
If an organization merely hopes to subsidize its budget with tax dollars because its own annual solicitation efforts have faltered, that’s entirely different from another that may be growing both in programming and in the public’s demand for its services. Whether a group’s services are free to all or available only to a small fraction of the population on a fee basis also makes a difference.
While many organizations may tout growth in programming, they also should demonstrate equal dedication to increasing revenue to pay for that through annual giving and private fundraising and not just calling on taxpayers to make up any shortfall.
Ultimately, residents will decide at town meeting. Some may grumble that the use of property tax money to subsidize these nonprofits amounts to involuntary contributions from people who may not be in a financial position to give. That is a valid point. The word “donation” in and of itself includes the notion of a gift made voluntarily. There’s nothing voluntary about paying taxes. The penalty for not paying? The town can take your property.
To be certain, as the experience during the last major funding increase request by the MDI YMCA demonstrated, enthusiastic supporters of the subsidy packed town meeting and prevailed in the voting. But that ham-fisted approach alienated many.
Because of that experience, the council may want to consider pulling out donation requests over, say $75,000, and placing them on the written ballot to insure the broadest spectrum of voter consideration.
In the end, it shouldn’t be about how successful a group is at packing the room at town meeting, but rather how well it serves the town and how valuable taxpayers view its contributions to the wider community.
Both the MDI YMCA and the Jesup are vital parts of the quality of life in the community and deserve public support in recognition of the services they provide. The question residents need to answer isn’t one of worthiness; it is of fairness and the appropriate funding level.