“You have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others,” is often advice handed out to mothers on afternoon talk shows and in women’s health magazines.
A few days after presenting his budget to the City Council, which featured a rather dramatic reduction in funding to arts, festivals, museums and other charitable organizations, along with a warning that the city would not continue to fund them, Mayor Sandy Stimpson had his own “Oprah” moment in a video he posted on his Facebook page.
Standing in front of a map with over 800 red dots on it representing infrastructure needs in the city of Mobile, Stimpson essentially said it was time for Mobile to take care of itself first.
The city’s infrastructure has basically been ignored for decades — streets are literally crumbling (I always pick on Ann Street, but Annie has a lot of friends who need help too), parks have been neglected (Have you seen the tennis courts at Crawford Park? I guess you can still call them tennis courts?) and jacked up sidewalks are breaking ankles and/or strawberrying knees and/or raspberrying elbows of joggers all over this city.
And I haven’t even gotten started on the fire stations in disrepair and the aging fleet of police cars. Or the other myriad challenges the city is facing.
“I believe the city’s core functions are: public safety, public works, city finance, strategic planning and economic development. The city should not be a major funder of non-profit organizations when it cannot take care of its obligations to all of its citizens,” Stimpson wrote in a letter to City Council president Gina Gregory last week.
And as much as I love all of the organizations affected and hate to see them have to scurry to fill the gaps in their budgets, he’s right.
There is only so much money in the city coffers to go around, and while non-profits, arts organizations, museums and festivals are absolutely vital to the quality of life in this city, needs have to be prioritized. And one trip down many of our streets, a stroll down our sidewalks or to some of our parks, and those needs are abundantly clear.
Before I launch into my little diatribe, let me first say once again, how much I think all of these organizations and events are tremendous assets to this city. But I have never liked the manner in which public money has been handed out to them in such a private fashion.
I’m not sure how the city got into the business of funding non-profits in the first place.
But for years we have asked previous administrations, “Why can’t we see the books of organizations that are receiving major chunks of public money?”
They would say, “Oh well they are private entities, so they don’t have to show you their books — that would be up to them.”
That’s just never felt right. Some even seemed to create these entities just so they wouldn’t have to do so, though city employees were often running some of these “organizations.”
When Lagniappe asked the Stimpson administration this week, if the entities that requested money provided financial statements to the city, we were told most but “not all” of them did. When we asked if these financial statements would be provided to the public for review or if the names of the organizations who did not provide financials would be disclosed, at press time, we were told by the administration that they were awaiting a legal opinion on the matter.
How on Earth can the city make a fair assessment of needs if everyone isn’t even providing the same documentation?
Rumors swirl from WeMo to LoDa that some organizations have millions in reserves and have added new handsomely paid salaried positions, while others are operating on life support. Again, how can you make a sound financial judgment on who needs what if you don’t have all of the information?
If you are going to ask for hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money, you should be prepared to hand over your financials and have them posted on the city website for the world (or at least the entire city) to see. I’m not sure what the “legal opinion” will be, but it is the opinion of this newspaper, that this is an area where absolute transparency is vital. For years this kind of taxpayer money has been handed out with nothing more than a “Trust me, these guys really need your money and these don’t,” and that is really, really icky. And at the very least can lead to the appearance of impropriety, and at worst a totally corrupt system.
We hope the new administration and City Council will make it a requirement for all performance contracts in this budget to make their financials available to the people of this city who are providing the funds they are requesting.
And if they don’t provide them, they should be removed from consideration. If the city can’t ascertain if funding is truly needed, why should they fork over our money to them? It is putting the administration in a position where they may possibly be funding an organization more financially solvent than the city itself. And that’s just cray-cray!
Again, I hope I am not sounding too hard on these guys. It’s not the organizations or events I have a beef with, it’s this system. I don’t even believe funding for non-profits by the city should be suspended indefinitely. If we ever get fat and happy again and get our own house back in order, I think there should absolutely be a way for funds to be allocated to these entities in a very open and transparent manner. And I am hopeful we are on the road to recovery. But even if that happens, these organizations should never become largely dependent on these monies, they should just consider it a delicious civic gravy they get when times are good. A little lagniappe, if you will.
I also believe in-kind services, like police and certain fee waivers, should absolutely be provided by the city when the economic or community impact has been demonstrated and it makes sense.
It’s time for the city to take care of the roads and ditches, and for ALL OF US to step up to the plate and take care of these organizations and events we all cherish.
We can all go in and scratch out checks to our favorite charities, support events we love or volunteer our time. They will gladly take it. But I’m pretty we can’t walk into city hall and swipe our debit card to buy a manhole cover for our own street. And I’m also pretty sure they won’t let us volunteer to repave our own roads on the weekend. (I would hate to see what my handiwork would look like.)
So, let’s take care what we can take care of best as a community and let city government take care of what it is supposed to take care of.
If we can do both of these things well, just think how magnificent this city really could be.