May 22, 2011; Source: Santa Barbara Independent | Like many local governments around the nation, Santa Barbara County typically funds various nonprofit organizations to deliver needed social services. This year, due to the county’s predicted $72 million budget shortfall, it is going to give 75 human services organizations nothing despite the Human Service Commission’s recommendation of grants between $5,000 to $85,000 for groups such as the Rape Crisis Center and the Family Service Agency.

Don’t assume that the county’s previous financial support was some sort of governmental gift to these nonprofits. They delivered services that the county had deemed important –and provided funding for them from the General Fund since 1977. County supervisors will have a final discussion of these all-but-assured goose eggs at their scheduled meeting on June 15. The topic of funding for these 75 nonprofits has been scheduled for three minutes’ worth of deliberation.

This is happening all across the country, not just in financially bereft California. On the east coast, York County in South Carolina is cutting $325,000 out of the $1 million it typically gives to nonprofit human service providers and more cuts may be in the offing. Particularly disturbing is the notion expressed by one of York County’s decision-makers that the local government’s support of these nonprofits was sort of a public sector charitable gift: “We don’t need to decide for taxpayers how to give to charity . . . When we’re spending taxpayers’ money, it needs to be spent on taxpayers’ services.”

How the decision of local governments meeting critical social needs through nonprofits has been transmuted into a notion of local government charitable substitution reflects a serious public misperception of nonprofit service providers. When the York Council on the Aging uses county funds to provide help to seniors (hot meals, social events, fitness programs, and other services provided in-home or in senior centers) it is delivering an important taxpayer service, not an inconsequential and disposable human service frill.

Somehow, the nonprofit sector has allowed the notion of government funding of nonprofits to be thought of as government charity rather than public funding of critical safety net services. There’s a need for public sector re-education.—Rick Cohen