A well-intended but flawed petition

By Walt Braun

We have strongly urged the Manhattan City Commission to continue to contribute modest funding to local social service agencies to meet some of the most acute needs of city residents. We disagree with those commissioners who want to halt or scale back the practice on the principle that caring for people in need is a private, not a public, function.

Given that a majority of the present commission has largely tuned out requests from agencies and citizens alike to maintain funding levels, we can hardly fault citizens who are soliciting signatures on a petition to ensure continued commission assistance.

But neither are we comfortable with the petition, which was to be circulated at about a dozen local churches this morning. It would require the City Commission either to commit at least 2 percent of the general fund to social service needs or put the matter to a public vote. In addition, the petition would keep the Social Services Advisory Board as the agency that makes funding recommendations and would require that unspent funds be carried over for social service needs in future years.

The 2 percent threshold is irksome. This year, it would have amounted to about $487,600, a little more than the highest previous commitment, $455,837 (slightly less than 2 percent of the general fund budget) in 2010. Although advocates could credibly argue that even 2 percent doesn’t approach all the needs, such a demand is misplaced.

We don’t object to the City Commission chipping in 2 percent — or even more in certain circumstances — but mandating it gives short shrift to the myriad other demands on the city budget. Moreover, although we disagree with commissioners who say caring for the needy is not their responsibility as elected officials, we also disagree with the notion that when private donations fall short, it’s fine to demand assistance from government.

We also take issue with the provision allowing unspent funds to be set aside for future needs. If the needs are as great as the agencies claim, there should be no unspent funds. If for whatever reason the city’s contribution is unspent, that money ought to be returned to the general fund for the City Commission to allocate as it deems appropriate, not saved for items agencies perceive to be future priorities.

Our sense is that this issue is headed toward a referendum. We’re confident that petitioners can amass enough signatures to force the issue, but we doubt that will sway the commission majority to accept the proposed threshold.

We also wouldn’t be surprised if the commission’s determination to trim social service funding leads to an increase in that funding in the future.

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