City Maintains Funding for Social Service Agencies

It took a lot of haggling, but city commissioners decided Monday that a dozen nonprofit social services agencies will get their usual allotment of city funds rather than suffer 25 percent cuts.

City staff has been struggling to adjust the annual budget under the specter of the unknown economic impacts of COVID-19. At issue during City Commission discussions on Friday and Monday was approximately $129,000 in city funds that social service agencies typically use as local matches for grants.

It was a meager amount when looking at the $9.6 million in cuts to the proposed city budget, most of it achieved by reducing incentives involving business development, delaying projects, continuing a hiring freeze and belt-tightening by city departments.

The vote maintains funding for the following nonprofit agencies:

  • Lakeland Vision – Age Friendly Lakeland: $30,000
  • Volunteers in Service to the Elderly (VISTE): $20,000
  • Sunrise Community of Polk: $13,942
  • Dream Center of Lakeland: $11,058
  • Homeless Coalition of Polk Inc.: $10,000
  • Kids PACK Inc.: $10,000
  • Catholic Charities of Central Florida: $7,000
  • Elder Point Ministries of Greater Lakeland: $7,000
  • Girls, Inc.: $5,000
  • LUCA (Leveling Up Children With Aspergers) Foundation: $5,000
  • New Life Outreach Ministry: $5,000
  • Early Learning Coalition of Polk County: $5,000

Commissioner Scott Franklin eventually sided with the majority in a 6-1 vote on Monday evening to restore the funds to the nonprofits, but on Friday during an agenda study session he had taken a different stance.

“We have already lost 60 percent of our cash on hand and we still don’t know what is ahead of us. I think we need to make the cuts,” Franklin said then. “This is no judgment on the benefits of these programs. There is fat, there is muscle and bone. Most of what we are looking at is not fat. If things turn out worse than it appears now, if this budget takes another dive, we are going to be cutting a lot more than cultural arts.”

The city is anticipating drops in revenue from sales tax, gasoline tax, various fees for services and, in the long run, property taxes as unemployed people’s homes may go into foreclosure and businesses fail.

Commissioners Phillip Walker, Stephanie Madden and Sara Roberts McCarley argued to restore full funding to the social services programs, saying they provide vital services for children, the elderly and disabled people and improve the community’s quality of life.

“I would hope we would not have to decrease any now in the midst of their suffering so much already,” Madden said. “I do believe that this is no different than economic development, that we leverage every dollar we give with dollars these organizations can get at the state and federal levels.”

Walker said that the social service agencies “support things we cannot do or don’t do. I do not want the city to become a social service agency. I think we should do even more in this time of need to support arts, culture and social services.”

Commissioner Bill Read, who was the only commissioner to vote against restoring the funds, said, “We don’t know what is going to happen yet. We have all these companies, major companies, filing bankruptcies now. In 2022 and 2023 it is going to get really bad.”

Read urged fellow commissioners to preserve all the capital possible.

The $129,000 could be carved out of $550,000 that will not have to be spent in supporting the RP Funding Center as events are canceled and postponed this fall because of the pandemic, City Finance Director Mike Brossart told commissioners. The city transfers about $5 million annually from the general fund to help support the city-owned convention center.

That $550,000 in savings will go back into the general fund and be set aside to help cover future funding shortfalls, Brossart said. But, he said, if commissioners wanted to, the planned cuts to the nonprofit organizations could be restored.

Mayor Bill Mutz commented, “Leadership requires we should do the most we can to help the most people possible” in these harder times.

Commissioner Chad McLeod joined the majority in restoring the cut funds.

City Manager Tony Delgado responded to concerns voiced by several commissioners about the $5 million subsidy going to the RP Funding Center. He said that most such facilities in small and medium-size cities are loss leaders used to boost tourism and the business economy.

Delgado, who is retiring in September, suggested that as the commission goes into next year it may want to look at long-term plans for the convention and events center, including opportunities and economic impact.

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