“There’s no way that government could be able to afford to provide the services that we provide,” Maria Placer says matter-of-factly, “and that goes for all the agencies that are service agencies.” The former KLFY anchor and news director, now executive director of 232-HELP, is moonlighting as spokeswoman for more than a dozen social-service organizations that receive roughly $281,000 from Lafayette Consolidated Government. That’s 62 percent of the nearly $453,000 LCG — and the Lafayette taxpayer — doles out annually in direct donations; 14 other entities — cultural service non-profits like Festival International and the Acadiana Arts Council, as well as annual events like Mardi Gras and the Christmas parade — share the remainder. Including in-kind donations like police security, utilities and public works, LCG aids 31 social service and arts/culture non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, with more than $780,000 annually. The figure and the recipients have, for the most part, remained static for more than a decade.
But that could change. An ordinance to phase out all funding will be voted on July 21. “What we do really is an intangible service,” Placer says, “because you can’t measure the impact of how much a life is worth, or how much training someone who is mentally disadvantaged is worth to be self-sustained, or feeding the elderly who are in-bound or house bound.” Her NGO, 232-HELP, is strictly a referral service: it puts the needy — those already on the margins and beyond the gaze of elected officials — in touch with agencies that can help. Definitely intangible. Unfortunately, intangibles can be a hard sell. City-Parish President Joey Durel has had a bead on eliminating funding for social service agencies since virtually his first day in office.
Placer, her voice wavering with passion at times, made a pitch July 7 to the Lafayette Consolidated Council, which will decide on the funding phase-out. This go-round, the funding, according to the ordinance, would be transferred to the Community Foundation of Acadiana and reduced by a third each year until — the math is easy here — there are no LCG funds after three years.
Following Placer’s plea and a short presentation by Acadiana Center for the Arts Executive Director Gerd Wuestemann, who represents the cultural half of the NGO equation, the council voted unanimously to advance the introductory ordinance sponsored by council members William Theriot and Jared Bellard to a July 21 final vote. Most indications are Theriot and Bellard don’t have the votes to get the ordinance approved — it was advanced out of a kind of parliamentary decorum — but the NGOs sweat it out all the same. “Of course this external agency thing comes up every year,” says Wuestemann. “We have after last year’s discussion talked to the city about coming up with a more permanent solution in the long term.”
The council’s vote to advance the funding phase-out came — ironically — on the same day Durel proclaimed this the Year of the Symphony, in honor of the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra’s 25th anniversary. That the ASO has survived a quarter century is testament to the value placed on culture in Lafayette: audiences are eager to attend, to purchase season tickets, to support fundraisers. But it’s also a testament to the city’s willingness to underwrite the arts, to make Lafayette a regional hub for culture and entertainment, to make Lafayette one of the cool places. The ASO receives about $10,000 in external-agency funding from LCG — a small percentage of the orchestra’s overall budget. But most mid-sized cities don’t even have orchestras to call their own, and even the symbolic gesture of ten grand can be crucial.
A problem for both halves of the NGO funding debate — the social service organizations on the one side and the arts/culture providers on the other — is that both are lumped together into one big fund; Faith House, which aids abused women and their children, is essentially competing with Festivals Acadiens for funding. Yet there seems to be no public policy governing how the funds are disbursed. “It’s very scientific,” jokes Performing Arts Society of Acadiana Executive Director Jackie Lyle. “They go to the spreadsheet, they click on funding from the year before, they paste it into this year. That’s the funding mechanism. That’s the process by which funds have been allocated for more than a decade. It really hasn’t fluctuated.”
Even Durel, who has proven himself a pragmatic politician, acknowledges the less-than scientific method to all this madness. Applications from the agencies go to Community Development first and then on to Durel’s office. But Durel admits, “I basically copy and paste, because in the end, after my first couple of years, I decided at some point, that such a minute piece of budget — such a tiny, tiny piece — it wasn’t worth the battle for me. I put it out there. I don’t get to make the decision in the end; the council gets to do what they want to do. They shift it around any way, so I just put it out there and let them do what they’re going to do with it anyway.” Direct funding of external agencies amounts to about seven-tenths of 1 percent of the LCG budget.
Durel is literally of two minds about NGO funding: he favors giving groups like Festival International and Festivals Acadiens money because there’s a return on the investment in the form of tourism — big time tourism — and the spending and tax revenue that go along with it. As Wuestemann points out, such events are tangible; the music wafts over the city, the streets get congested, the media get excited — it all coalesces in a long, loud weekend. But Durel also favors groups like PASA, which helps keep a city-owned building, the Heymann Performing Arts Center, in the black, even though that benefit is spread over several months. “They probably bring into the Heymann Center about $100,000 a year,” Durel says. “If I’d have had a customer when I was in business for myself that spent $100,000 a year with me, I would never have hesitated on doing something for them that would have resulted in a maybe 5 percent rebate let’s say, a 5 percent discount because they spent so much money with me.”
And therein lies the dilemma for social service agencies like Placer’s 232-HELP ($31,462 direct donation), and Faith House ($26,234 direct), Healing House ($15,101 direct) and Volunteer Instructors Teaching Adults, an adult literacy program ($5,034 direct) — for proponents of a funding cut there’s no obvious return on the taxpayer investment. 232-HELP does not bring in tourists. VITA doesn’t fill hotels. But Placer argues the return on the investment comes in the form of social service non-profits picking up a hell of a lot of slack. “You’re talking about an awful lot that government would have to take up, and there’s no way they could do it,” she insists. “There’s no way the taxpayers want to face the added money that it would cost them to take care of it.”
|AcA Executive Director Gerd Wuestemann is proposing a model that takes NGO funding out of the council’s hands.|
|Photo by Ooti Billeaud
|232-HELP Executive Director Maria Placer argues agencies such as hers provide vital services and shoulder a burden for LCG.|
|Photo by Ooti Billeaud|
Theriot, Bellard main proponents of funding phase-out. By Nathan Stubbs
|William Theriot and Jared Bellard|
|Photo by Isabel LaSala|
Last year, councilmen William Theriot and Jared Bellard stood alone in support of a budget proposal to zero out Lafayette Consolidated Government’s funding of non-profits, or non-governmental organizations. Theriot and Bellard have now taken up the cause again, this time in the form of a three-year phase-out plan that shifts the funds over to the police and fire departments.
“I think there is a better chance of it passing this year,” Bellard says. “It’s a matter of priorities. Once we have met all the needs of our police and fire departments, then we can start looking at funding for non-profits. Some of these non-profits benefit only about 5 percent of the population whereas police and fire protection is parishwide; it covers everyone.”
LCG contributes an annual total of $452,723 in supplemental funding to NGOs, spread among 23 different agencies.
Theriot stresses he and Bellard are not trying to work against the non-profits. “There’s a misconception about all this stuff with the non-profits in that they think we’re trying to do away with them,” he says. “That’s not the case. I mean, there’s a possibility some of these non-profits might actually receive more funds than what they get now.”
That scenario seems unlikely. Theriot and Bellard’s ordinance, up for final adoption before the council on July 21, calls for a 33.33 percent cut in LCG’s funding to external agencies over each of the next three years. The ordinance also takes the funding out of the council’s hands altogether, funneling the remaining three years of allocations through the Community Foundation of Acadiana, which would then award the money in the form of grants. The hope is that the CFA would be able to draw in private donations and, after three years, be able to continue at least some of the funding without any assistance from LCG.
CFA Director Raymond Hebert says that “anything is possible,” but “there are no guarantees” in what type of funding the organization could provide on its own. The CFA has taken a somewhat ambiguous position on the issue, wary about being seen as partners in a plot to cut funding to non-profits.
“We’re not endorsing or opposing this proposal,” Hebert says. “There are a lot of different ideas out there. And this is not something we sought out. We’ve been called to the table.” Hebert acknowledges another idea being discussed is for LCG to continue funding non-profits, but that the grants be awarded through the CFA, as a means of removing politics from the process.
“We’re only promoting that if there’s an opportunity for us to enhance this process, if there’s an opportunity for us to enhance the good non-profits that do such good work, then we want to participate somehow, someway,” Hebert says. “Ideally, we would like to be in a position to have discretionary dollars that we can grant on a competitive basis. We’re interested in enhancing quality of life in our community, and if our experience, if our expertise can offer some value to the process, then we want to participate. If it can’t offer any value, we really don’t want to participate.”
Theriot and Bellard appear to be facing an uphill battle in winning over the support of their fellow councilmen. City-Parish President Joey Durel, who is also opposed to the ordinance as it’s written, would consider vetoing the bill if it passed in its current form. “I think if it has any chance at all of passing, there’s going to be some amendments applied to it,” Durel says. “If it causes more harm than good, then I can’t support it. And I think what we’re doing right now is we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
In his first term, Durel proposed cutting off LCG funding to social service agencies, but dropped the issue when hurricanes Katrina and Rita created a greater demand than ever for those organizations. He still favors ending government funding to select social service agencies and revisiting funding for arts and culture organizations, which he views as providing a more direct return on taxpayers’ investment.
Theriot, a Republican who’s often shown a libertarian streak since joining the council, has used the issue in promoting a more minimalist government. “Personally, I do not believe this should be a government mandate,” he says. “Individuals should be able to choose if and how much they wish to give to these organizations. The government is telling you what you have to give money to, and that’s not what America is about.” Theriot also claims that fewer people now donate to charities “because government does it for them.”
“I know [the non-profits] provide a service, and they help people absolutely, and it’s a great thing,” says Theriot. “The only question I have is the mechanism by which they are funded. You name me any private business that goes out there and says, ‘you know what, I’m going to go to the government, you give me some money so I can get going?’”
Reminded of several examples of government subsidies that go to the private sector, including state funds and incentives now being directed to assist private businesses including Foster Farms chicken plant, the new V-Vehicle car manufacturing company and the New Orleans Saints, Theriot says he isn’t sure he supports those initiatives either.
“The thing is, is that that concerns me quite a bit,” he says. “There is too much of a reliance on government, in my opinion. We need to have people who are willing to be intuitive, do it on their own, be self-reliant. I don’t like to see it when people rely on others to get things done.” Theriot is quick to point out that he opposed the recently passed federal stimulus package, as well as bailouts of the auto and financial industries passed by Congress.
“Our major priorities in Lafayette are fire, roads, drainage, infrastructure and safety, that’s it,” he adds. “That’s the priorities of government, which means you have to take care of those priorities first.”
“Say you work for a business,” Theriot continues, “and your boss says, ‘OK I need you to go fill up the company vehicle with gas, here’s $50.’ You go down to the gas station, you pump $20 of gas, then you go inside and you buy a box of Twinkies, a couple of cases a beer and some lotto tickets and then you go back to work. Is the money going where it was really supposed to go? And what do you think your boss would tell you? In this instance, the taxpayers of Lafayette are our bosses, and they’ve given us money and told us that we’re supposed to use this money in a certain place, and that’s the main justification for it.”
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