At a recent city commission meeting, it was reported that the City of Owensboro contributes more than double the funding toward arts programs than it does toward social service programs.
Out of the $1.8 million the City budgets for arts, social service and governmental agencies for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, $865,000 of that funding went toward the arts. Another $600,000 went toward government-run organizations like the Owensboro-Daviess County Regional Airport and Owensboro Metropolitan Planning Commission. But social service agencies — including homeless shelters, drug and alcohol treatment centers, spousal and child abuse centers and senior citizen centers — received only $425,000.
This $1.8 million may seem like a lot of money, but the City of Owensboro operates on a $55 million annual budget, meaning only 3.3 percent of the City’s budget goes toward all of these agencies.
“The vast majority of funding for these arts agencies comes from taxpayers,” said City Commissioner Larry Conder. “There’s almost a 2:1 ratio for what goes toward the arts agencies and what goes toward social services. It causes people to question where the city’s priorities are.”
Conder said that some of these arts agencies, such as the Owensboro Museum of Science & History, is in dire need of funding. With only $26,000 cash on hand, currently, the museum is at risk of losing all their available funding if one important need were to arise. The City of Owensboro contributed $136,000 toward the science museum in 2018-2019.
Other arts programs that received funding from the city government this year include the RiverPark Center, Owensboro Museum of Fine Art, Owensboro Symphony Orchestra, Theatre Workshop of Owensboro, Western Kentucky Botanical Gardens, Friday After 5, The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum and The Owensboro Black Expo.
Conder said the City of Owensboro owns four of these buildings, and that a signed agreement states that the tenants are supposed to have enough money on hand to fix any of the building’s issues. However, Conder said most of these tenants ask the City to cover these costs, regardless of what the agreement has outlined.
Meanwhile, a majority of the $425,000 the city contributes toward social services is directed to United Way, which receives $318,000 to distribute to the programs they determine need money the most. According to CEO and President of United Way in Owensboro David Ross, some of the programs receiving local government funding include the H. L. Neblett Community Center, Girls Inc., Cliff Hagan Boys & Girls Club, Meals on Wheels, along with several others.
“We have about 22 agencies we support across the city,” Ross said. “These agencies range from prenatal services all the way to end-of-life care.”
Ross said United Way takes a look at the needs within the community, and they work with agencies to assist the people in the respective and diverse communities across the area.
Because the city’s allocated funds for social services don’t go toward some high-need organizations such as St. Benedict’s Homeless Shelter or the Daniel Pitino Shelter, Ross said a new 211 Line is being used to share and gather information in order to provide assistance for the programs that need it most.
“You can dial one number, 211, and that’s a game-changer,” Ross said. “You can reach any agency in Daviess County. By doing that, we’ll be able to better track what needs are being met and not being met. We have to make choices with the amount of money we have. We have to see where we can make the biggest change.”
Ross said United Way’s primary concern is to serve the agencies with an identifiable community need.
“The City has put great confidence in us to identify these community needs,” Ross said. “If we can raise more money, we’d be able to provide more agencies with funding. We don’t want to take away from some agencies without the data to back that up.”
Conder’s primary concern is the fact that the local government is continuing to contribute more heavily toward arts agencies and government-run organizations than toward programs working to better the lives of many Owensboro residents.
Conder came up with a proposed solution he believes could help each agency receive funding on a potential “needs over wants” manner. Over 10 years ago, Conder said the city commission put a study together, involving a group of people who composed a granting mechanism for said agencies. Each person was independent from the agencies who were competing for funding.
While that idea was overturned 10 years ago, Conder said he’d like to bring it back and see it come to fruition. The Commission for Oversight and Impact for Nonprofits (COIN) could give local residents a say in how their tax dollars are spent and, hopefully, see that some overlooked organizations receive the funding they need.
“There are certain power bases that don’t want that to happen,” Conder said. “But we could take the City’s funds that they wish to contribute, and we could even invite the County to be a part of it. Then we’d reach out to businesses, and those businesses would decide where that money goes. I believe those businesses may step forward and say, ‘I’ll put one line item in my budget for…’”
Conder’s proposed plan would involve a group of no more than nine people, all of whom would have no ties with any of the agencies that apply for funding. This group would likely be facilitated by the City’s finance director and assistant city manager, Conder said. Because of political and personal bias in the local government industry, Conder believes COIN could make sure these funds are distributed fairly and give people across the community a say as to where their tax dollars are directed.
“We have got to change how this is done,” Conder said. “It needs to be decided by individuals who don’t have a political stance or anything to lose or gain. It takes that responsibility and holds everyone accountable. We could have an ultimate overturn, maybe.”
Conder said he wants to see his community thrive, and he believes a unique idea such as his could put more power in the hands of the people.
“I love the arts, but it bothers me — and it’s bothered me since I began a city commissioner — that this type of skewed funding is continuing,” Conder said. “It’s a wants versus needs situation. This has gone on for a long period of time, and how it’s going to be changed — well, that remains to be seen.”