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Funding fight: Nonprofits look for grant-in-aid funding

With the end of the fiscal year fast approaching, nonprofits are looking to have legislators restore funding lost last year.

The future may be a bit brighter for the more than 200 agencies throughout the state that receive state funding through its grant-in-aid program.

Although final numbers won’t be available until the legislature finishes its work at midnight June 30, the directors of nonprofits receiving money from the state say they’re hopefully optimistic they’ll see more money after last year’s 20 percent cut.

Recent estimates of expected income, projected in late May by the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council, or DEFAC, show revenues about $180 million more than anticipated by Gov. John Carney in his proposed budget.

Some of that could go to restoring some of the 20 percent cut made last year when legislators had to find ways to plug a $400 million deficit.

“We’ve had a lot of contact with our legislators,” noted Kate Lyons, deputy director of Dover’s Modern Maturity Center.

“I don’t know how much they were aware of before, but we’ve told them that if they were to cut funding, there are many people in their districts who would be affected.”

Grant-in-aid is a process where legislators portion out part of the state budget to nonprofits across Delaware to provide services and help to those in need. It’s considered supplemental funding to agencies ranging from senior centers to fire departments to groups including the American Legion, Junior Achievement and those helping the homeless.

Legislation to provide grant-in-aid funding is in one of three finance bills considered by the General Assembly in the closing hours of each legislative session.

Because this money is not firmly set until legislators get ready to go home June 30, the nonprofits don’t know how much they can expect until then, said Sheila Bravo, president and CEO of the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement.

To close last year’s budget gap, legislators first considered cutting all grant-in-aid funding, but later settled for trimming 20 percent across the board. The result was about $37 million awarded to grant-in-aid recipients.

Even though they still got at least 80 percent of what they were looking for, the cuts had a dramatic effect on those agencies, Bravo said.

“We’re trying to help our elected officials understand what the challenges were and why reinstating the funding is really important,” she said. “It’s not like the need for these programs went away when the funding was reduced.”

Cuts here, trim there

News of last year’s cutbacks did not take many nonprofits by surprise, but they had to take immediate actions to deal with the cuts. Some trimmed staff, some cut administrative expenses.

The one thing no one wanted to do was ax services, particularly those provided by senior centers throughout the state.

Ken Bock, CEO of CHEER in Sussex County, said like many senior centers throughout Delaware, the Sussex CHEER centers offer personal care services, transportation and senior housing, Meals on Wheels plus a mobile grocery mini-mart. It also sponsors nutrition programs and support groups, companionship and housekeeping, and activity centers located throughout the county.

Last year’s cuts meant the seven senior centers under the CHEER umbrella lost more than $200,000 all told, he said.

Adjustments were inevitable.

“We did a number of things,” Bock said. “We did not give any staff raises. We canceled all but mandatory staff training, there was no reimbursement for personal vehicle travel and we didn’t fill any vacant positions.”

The CHEER centers saved additional cash by consolidating several personnel positions or deferring some purchases, Bock said, and they employed a grassroots fundraising effort, including bringing in cash from events as small as bake sales.

“We did all of that with the goal of not having to cut any services, and we were able to do that, for this year,” he said.

Lyons said Dover’s Modern Maturity Center lost about $120,000 in funding. That does not include cuts in nutrition service programs such as Meals on Wheels.

Like the CHEER centers, MMC staff cut back where they could and held a number of fundraisers. These efforts barely were enough to keep up with the demand for services.

“It’s been tight, but we haven’t had to cut any positions,” Lyons said. “If we get more cuts, then we’ll have to cut people.”

Executive Director Carolyn Fredricks took to social media to rally MMC members and make them more aware of the need to restore lost funding this year. In her May 2018 newsletter, Fredricks urged members to fight by contacting local lawmakers.

“Another way to help is to please call your legislators and let them know that you want them to fully restore the cuts to grant-in-aid for all nonprofits,” she wrote, adding that nonprofits employ more than 38,000 people in the state and generate billions of dollars in annual revenues.

Fredricks provided email addresses and phone numbers for 17 legislators in her appeal.

In New Castle County, Newark Senior Center Director Carla Grygiel said last year’s cuts fell squarely on the backs of the center’s staff.

“They bore the brunt of the cuts,” she said. “They had no pay increases and had to pay more for their health insurance. We also had positions that weren’t filled. It’s hard to hire new staff when you’re not sure how your year will turn out.”

The staff members were faced with the prospect of raising fees, something they felt would be counterproductive.

“That greatly affects participation in the programs,” Grygiel said. “If you raise fees, you have less participation. The net change is not a positive. Our goal is to have as many people as possible take advantage of the programs and services we provide.”

At the Mamie Warren Senior Center near Smyrna, Executive Director Debra Brown said the nonprofit lost about $36,500 last year. While no one was let go due to the cutbacks, one person’s hours were reduced, membership fees were raised and center-sponsored trips picked destinations closer to home.

The Warren center also dipped into reserve funds, sponsored a number of fundraising projects, held a gift card of the month contest and backed several yard sales.

“Sometimes we made $200 a month or so,” Brown said.

They raised about $400 from seniors contributing their loose change.

“Every little bit helped,” Brown said.

The executive director said the Warren center is “hanging in there,” hoping some of the funds cut will be restored this year.

Other services saw cuts as a result of legislators looking to save money.

In Harrington, the city’s parks and recreation center also faced the prospect of losing services as the state provided less money.

The center usually obtains around $30,000 annually from grant-in-aid, but that was cut to about $25,600, director Bill Falasco said.

“We did what everyone else would do in situations where they get assistance to run the things we run,” he said. “We had to pick and choose what we could run safely and not give any one program any more meaning than another.”

Raising program fees was not feasible, Falasco said.

“We could have raised fees to make up for the money we lost, but at the time of the year we learned about the cuts it was too late to raise the cost of taking part in the programs,” he said. “We already had listed prices for the fall programs and we had to do that going into July. When you put it out there, you can’t just change it.”

Consequently, the center made other cuts, such as deferring the purchase of new sports equipment, Falasco said.

Meals on Wheels money

One well-respected program endangered last year was the nutrition services at senior centers. Popularly known as Meals on Wheels, it provides hot meals to seniors throughout Delaware.

The program has grown to the point that Dover’s Modern Maturity Center is building a 1,700-square-foot kitchen expansion. The center provides about 300,000 meals to housebound clients each year.

The majority of the money for Meals on Wheels comes from state financing other than the grant-in-aid, although GIA funding is used for administrative purposes.

In addition to urging MMC members to push for restoring full funding, Fredricks also asked them to call legislators to keep them from trimming more than $840,000 from the Meals on Wheels appropriation.

“Now is the time to make your voices heard,” she wrote. “One or two phone calls can be dismissed, but when your legislator gets 10, 20, 50 or more phone calls on the same subject, they will listen.”

If the cuts came to fruition, many homebound seniors would not get what many consider their only hot meal of the day, Fredricks said.

It appears legislators got the word.

The General Assembly provided $6 million from state and federal sources to fund Meals on Wheels, and the Joint Finance Committee set aside $840,000, plus an extra $10,000 in discretionary funds for the Office of Management and Budget to use, to keep it properly funded through Fiscal Year 2019.

Possible full funding, with oversight

Retiring state Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, a member of the Joint Finance Committee, noted Gov. John Carney has called upon legislators to restore at least 8 percent of the 20 percent cut last year.

There also appears to be some agreement among committee members to reverse all of last year’s cuts, Bushweller said.

“The real point is that I think there is broad consensus in the JFC — we’ll find out whether I’m right — to fully restore the 20 percent,” he said.

However, speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s JFC session, co-chair Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, seemed to put the brakes on the prospects of automatic restoration to prior FY 2017 levels.

“I personally am one that believes that full restoration would be a mistake. I think what we need to do is look individually at the recipients,” he said.

Legislators should be more selective about who could get a full 20 percent restoration of funding, McDowell said.

Fellow co-chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, said legislators will be taking the next few weeks — until the June 30 deadline — going over individual grant-in-aid applications.

They’ll be doing what McDowell has proposed, George Smith said, identifying those organizations that are best utilizing, best investing, the money that the state is providing to them, and that will help inform their decision about grant-in-aid.

George Smith added she’d like to see full grant-in-aid restoration — and perhaps more — for truly deserving agencies.

Earlier, Bushweller had noted legislative interest in McDowell’s proposal to establish a review process. Currently, there is no way to ensure the money granted is spent as each application promises, he said.

“The majority of money spent in grant-in-aid is spent on things about which there is little question about the efficacy of the spending,” Bushweller said. “Most is spent on paramedics, senior centers, veterans organizations, big things. Not much is spent on other organizations, but we owe it to the taxpayers to take a look at that from time to time to make sure those organizations are spending the money wisely. I don’t know if that will happen this year, but the interest is there.”

The Newark Senior Center’s Carla Grygiel said she was cautiously optimistic about the situation.

“We’re hoping they’ll restore some, if not all, of the funding,” she said. “I think it’s important to note that Delaware is not like other states in that we have the support of the state in providing opportunities for seniors. It’s important to note that we are very grateful to have that support from the state. It enables us to better serve so many of Delaware’s citizens.”