SOS plan would boost funds 33%

By Bill Felber

If an initiative designed to lock in city social service spending becomes law, benefiting agencies could see as much as an overall 33 percent boost in their municipal revenues next year.

That’s because the initiative being pushed by an organization called Save Our Social Services would require future city commissioners to allocate at least two percent of total general fund spending to social service programs or to a reserve fund dedicated to that use. Organizers submitted a petition last week seeking to force the commission’s hand on their proposed ordinance. If the petitions are found to have sufficient valid signatures — about 1,500 – the commission must either adopt the ordinance or submit it to a referendum.

The petition has three essential components. First, it would keep the Social Services Advisory Board (SSAB) as the group responsible for making funding recommendations to the City Commission. Second, it would require the city to spend 2 percent of the general fund on social services funding each year. Third, it would require unallocated funds to be carried over for future social services spending.

If voters approve the ordinance, it would be irrevocable and non-amendable for a period of 10 years. It would also mean a substantial immediate impact on social service agencies because the city never has committed 2 percent of the general fund to that purpose. At present the city commits the equivalent of only about 1.6 percent of its general fund to social service causes. And at least one city commissioner has indicated he’s prepared to reduce that percentage even further.

The city allocated $373,600 from its $24.348 million general fund to 10 social service agencies during the current budget year, amounts ranging from $3,000 to UFM up to $72,000 to the Manhattan Emergency Shelter.

City finance director Bernie Hayen was reticent Friday to project what the general fund might look like next year, but in recent years it has risen by about 2 percent annually. If it does so again, the fund would be just short of $25 million. If the commission were required to dedicate 2 percent of that to social services, it would translate to a $496,706 commitment, about $123,000 more than the agencies received this year.

Gayle Bennett, chair of the Social Services Advisory Board that recommends funding levels to the commission, steered well clear of the debate over the proposed initiative. 

“I have no comment on the current SOS petition,” Bennett said in an emailed reply to a request for a position statement. She added that “SSAB will work with parameters as they currently exist until the Board is informed that parameters have changed.”

Until last year, social service spending was one of the less-controversial aspects of the annual city budget debate. For at least the four prior budget cycles dating back to 2008, city officials had simply accepted the recommendations of the Social Services Advisory Board, concerning which agencies should get how much money. That commitment rose from $385,155 in 2008 to $455,837 (about 1.95 percent) in 2010, then declined to $417,200 when the Area Transportation Agency was deleted as a social service commitment and made a line item in the city’s transportation budget instead.

Things changed following the election of a more conservative city commission majority in April of 2011. Last June, newly elected commissioner Wynn Butler urged commissioners to consider funding reductions for nine agencies Butler stamped “non-vital.” Among them were the Big Brothers and Big Sisters, which received $37,000 in Social Services Advisory Board funding, UFM ($3,000), and the Boys and Girls Club ($28,800),

Butler said he would have protected seven other agencies, which he labeled as “vital,” among them Shepherd’s Crossing, Kansas Legal Services, Sunflower CASA, Homecare and Hospice, The Crisis Center, the Emergency Shelter, and ATA Bus.

Although Butler’s proposal lost out when the 2012 budget was finalized, he made it plain he intended to revisit the issue during the current budget year. Noting projections of as much as a 10 mill increase in the levy, to cover debt payments downtown, Butler said at the time that the discussions should mark a “paradigm shift” in the way social services are funded.

“Let’s get all the good-hearted people of Manhattan to understand we need social agencies, they need to be funded, they need to be funded through private mechanisms and please donate,” he said at the time.

That approach was challenged by then-Mayor Jim Sherow, who contended that maintaining the city’s quality of life hinged on not reducing social service spending. “I was taught that the mark of a community is … how it treats its most vulnerable members,” Sherow said.

When they announced their intent to mount the petition campaign, SOS backers made it clear they wanted to head off the possibility of Butler’s initiative being enacted by a conservative commission. They launched the campaign in November, and by the time the petitions were submitted last week organizer Deb Nuss said about 1,800 signatures were on hand. The staff of county clerk Rich Vargo is in the process of verifying that the signatures are those of registered voters in the city of Manhattan. Vargo has projected that a determination concerning the signatures’ validity will be available in about two weeks.

If the ordinance is adopted, it does not necessarily follow that every existing agency would get about 33 percent more city money than it got this year. Commissioners could choose to spread the money around among additional agencies, or they could choose to bank some of it for future social service use.

But they would be required to collect it, and they would be prohibited from eliminating the Social Services Advisory Board as the recommending agency.

It is impossible to gauge what tax impact, if any, there would be from the ordinance. General fund revenues come from a variety of sources, of which the sales tax is one of the largest. Some property tax revenues go toward the general fund, but most are committed to police protection.

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