Social service alternatives get mixed reviews

Most commissioners support new approaches, but Sherow urges caution

By Burk Krohe

Commissioners advised city staff Tuesday to research three alternative funding sources for social service agencies. However, the decision came with considerable debate and disagreement.

At a work session on the topic, city officials presented information drawn from surveys of a number of comparable Kansas cities that have used alternative funding programs for social services. Among the suggestions, a majority of commissioners favored consideration of a voluntary purchasing card program for city vendors, a city credit card program and a recurring utility donation program.  Commissioner Wynn Butler characterized the suggestions as a positive move.

Bernie Hayen, finance director, said the cities surveyed included: Coffeyville, Dodge City, Garden City, Hutchinson, Salina and Olathe. Hayen noted those cities used alternative funding methods for a variety of purposes including, public zoos and parks, teen centers, public arts and daycare.

However, Mayor Jim Sherow was skeptical about the analysis. Sherow said comparisons between social services and what the other cities’ programs pay for is like “comparing apples to oranges.” He said he would have liked to see per-capita numbers detailing what percentage of those cities’ general fund goes toward social services funding.

The purchasing card would be issued to people the city makes payments to who agree to the program. The purchasing card holder would pay the credit card fee, which typically accounts for a percentage of the monthly invoice. The city would receive a small tiered-structured percentage return depending on the vendors’ payments.

The credit card program would allow for a bank-issued credit card for qualifying individuals. The city would receive a small percentage return depending on monthly charges.

The utility donations would allow customers to sign up for a recurring donation as part of their monthly utility bills.

The finance department believes the credit card has the potential to bring in the most revenue, an estimated $20,000 to $50,000 annually, while the p-card has the potential to take in $5,000 to $40,000. The utility donations would likely take in the least amount of revenue out of the three, anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000.

Discussion of the programs veered slightly to the overall issue of social services, though.

Sherow, who has continually advocated city funding of social services, said blowback from the community could result in the passage of a petition ordinance that would tie the hands of future commissioners for years.  Such a petition campaign is already under way here.

“I would caution us to be very careful about the way this is approached and the way this is framed,” he said.

However, Butler and Commissioner John Matta saw the alternative funding suggestions as a solid first step toward non-tax-supported funding. They said the intent isn’t to get rid of social services but to start a “paradigm shift” in thinking.

They said even if a petition ordinance passed, money from the programs would still be available, thereby easing the burden on the general fund.

Matta added that it would say a lot more about the community if social services were funded purely by the donations of generous residents.

“I don’t understand why …(we couldn’t eventually) have donations in the range of $400,000 a year,” Butler said. “It could work through this.”

Sherow disagreed, saying the Commission is part of a social contract.

“For me, the central question is, is there a citizen-wide responsibility for public welfare or is this the responsibility only of those who are willing to pay?” Sherow said.

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