Our Opinion: Wilson could learn from Wilson County on nonprofit grants

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Both the Wilson City Council and Wilson County Board of Commissioners believe in supporting local nonprofits. But only the commissioners give citizens a say in the matter and verify that their beneficiaries are good stewards of taxpayer money.

While both elected boards prepare to adopt annual budgets for the 2018-19 fiscal year, we're putting the mechanisms they use to fund Wilson charities under the microscope.

Wilson County requires nonprofit organizations to submit annual funding applications that include their budget requests, financial records and an explanation of their needs. The county manager recommends allocations and a nonprofit subcommittee can make adjustments before forwarding the recommendations along to the full board.

Commissioners consider nonprofits' requests along with budget recommendations for each county department. If residents want to lobby for an increased allocation or call for a charity to be defunded, they have the opportunity to do so during a public hearing on the budget that's held before commissioners take a vote.

More than 20 nonprofit agencies requested a combined total of roughly $795,000 from the county for the upcoming fiscal year. Times reporter Olivia Neeley detailed those budget requests and County Manager Denise Stinagle's recommended allocations in a front-page story. Stakeholders had that information a full two weeks ahead of the June 5 public hearing on the county budget.

Nonprofits aren't off the hook when the check clears. Under a transparency and accountability policy adopted two years ago, beneficiaries of county tax dollars agree to submit quarterly reports detailing how the public money was spent and how that investment benefited the community. 

Wilson, on the other hand, outsources its nonprofit grantmaking to the United Way of Wilson County. In 2017, the city allocated $410,000 from Wilson Energy revenues for the umbrella agency, and United Way officials divvied up $360,000 between seven nonprofits that are regular recipients and split $50,000 among nine requesters seeking one-time grants.

Council members used to decide funding recipients and divide the dollars themselves, but in 2010 the council withdrew from that function to avoid perceived conflicts of interest and head off accusations of favoritism.

"The city council adopted this process to add an additional layer of oversight to ensure funding decisions were not being made in a political environment but rather through a need-based and performance-based analysis, which is clearly the position of the United Way," city of Wilson spokeswoman Rebecca Agner explained.

We find no fault in that reasoning, but we do find Wilson's process wanting when it comes to accountability. Wilsonians don't have a say in how their money is spent and won't receive a report on how nonprofits used their allotment of public dollars.

Entirely separate from the charitable contributions are the city of Wilson's annual expenditures for governmental groups and public-private partnerships such as Wilson 20/20 Community Vision and the N.C. Whirligig Festival. Those fall outside the annual budget cycle and come from the Community Investment Grant Fund, better known as the unseemly pool of profit raked in from Wilson Energy customer late fees. The council doled out nearly $200,000 from that account during a meeting last September.

As we've said in this space before, the city should not be overcharging customers to the extent that there's roughly $280,000 a year left over when all expenses related to late payments have been borne. Wilson should either lower late fees or save the money in a risk management account that will allow it to cease charging high-dollar deposits for new utility service.

County commissioners have set such high standards for private use of public money that their counterparts on the city council ought to consider raising the bar. Allowing the United Way to recommend funding amounts for each partner agency is fine, but perhaps Wilson residents should have the chance to review the planned distributions and chime in during a public hearing. And if Wilson County requires quarterly reports from every charity it funds, an annual presentation from city grant recipients shouldn't be too much to ask. Agner said the United Way provides the city with a yearly report, but it isn't discussed at council meetings.

City councilmen needn't reinvent the wheel, but they'd be wise to make the funding process more transparent and shed some sunlight on nonprofit spending.