It’s always a bit of an uncomfortable experience as the various local agencies come to the city and county to ask for funding each year.
Standing with your hat in your hand is a squirm-worthy moment. And it can’t be much easier to have to decide what to fund and what not to.
The requests are always for absolutely good, worthy causes, and while it’s not my place to speak for elected officials, I’d like to bet they would by happy to respond fully to all if there were a magic pot of money sitting around.
The unfortunate truth is, our local entities have very little discretionary cash. Those big budgets you hear about, well, those are divided up into very specific funds and the funds flowing into them can only be used for those dedicated purposes.
And, as is sometimes hard to appreciate when your favorite cause is struggling, the money isn’t “theirs” for a city or county or school board to give away - it belongs to the taxpayers and that means every dollar has to be weighed cautiously by those who hold the people’s trust.
As the city council fielded requests Monday, one thing struck me, as it has every year I’ve seen it happen. I wish we’d drop this term, “outside agencies.”
Upper Des Moines Opportunity, Witter Gallery, the Historical Society museum, Storm Lake United - they’re not outsiders, they are valuable assets of our community. The one agency we’ve funded that might appropriately be called “outside” is the Iowa Lakes Corridor, which to date, anyway, does not have a local site or staff in this community.
Storm Lake is a fortunate community to have a charitable agency, cultural facilities, and tourism and business development agency. If they didn’t exist, the city would probably have to create something like them, or at least hire staff to meet these needs.
I sympathize with the situation of local officials. They are not as flush as one might think. The city has had to cut jobs, like the park rangers, in recent years. Debts must be paid. And, for example, Storm Lake is facing another layer of property tax rollback on multi-unit properties courtesy of the state of Iowa, which to date has done nothing to backfill the losses it created to communities. We have a lot of apartment buildings, townhouses and condos in Storm Lake, and so, a significant budget blow. Tough decisions will have to be made in the next year.
But if our communities can help somehow scrape the bowl to help Upper Des Moines Opportunity, I would suggest, this should be a top priority.
Working-poor poverty has grown steadily in Storm Lake. We reported just this week that one in five children in this area are now growing up in households below poverty level. Three out of every four kids in our schools qualify along low-income guidelines for free or reduced school lunch. People stand in line in the snow for two hours for some basic food at a mobile pantry.
Need is very deep and very real in Storm Lake, and will be until we are able to develop more jobs with living wages and benefits, and more available entry-level housing.
UDMO is the only thing that keeps a lot of families going. It is as basic as it gets - it’s the last safety net.
It’s been a privilege to work with the agency on projects to assist the needy every year. I’ve seen enough to tell you that they do an amazing job, stretching every dollar and donation to the hilt, responding to each change in our community makeup, and networking every which way. UDMO has literally kept people from being on the streets.
To thousands who have been helped in their time of need, and many more of us who have worked with it, it is as inside as it gets.
Yes, a charity is never the final answer. We have to educate, train and connect people with opportunities to ultimately lift their families out of poverty, and that takes time. But in crisis, you better have a stopgap. If you can’t feed the hungry, keep a roof over their heads and keep the lights and heat on - you have very little hope of achieving those longer term results.
UDMO is asking for $8,000 each from the city and the county. It is pitifully little compared to the price of a road or a snowplow or all of the other responsibilities our local governments have, but that doesn’t make it easy to come up with in a tight budget. Let’s hope for the best.
At the same time, let’s recognize that it is not all the responsibility of local government to fund these needs. Or the responsibility of the wonderful donors, volunteers and businesses in this community who do so much, so often, for our causes.
During the meeting where UDMO made its request, a council member asked where the people working in poverty that they serve are employed. She mentioned several specific places. What you would have noticed right away is one thing in common. They are not the local mom and pops, they are factories or franchises of giant corporations that happen to be located in our area that are run by some of the wealthiest business concerns in the country.
Our biggest employer has tried to do its part. Tyson has donated thousands of pounds of meat to help UDMO and other efforts for the needy. I know the groceries help out, others have done food drives and fundraisers.
I would encourage the local manager of every corporate dealer, retailer, restaurant, etc. to pin down their human resource department to see if they have a grant program of some kind that can be called upon to help here. If some of your employees can’t afford food on the wages you offer them, and must have community support to survive, it’s the least you can do.
Let’s hope for a kind 2017, and better times for all.