Public Watchdog.org

Public Subsidies Demand Transparency

04.27.09

At tonight’s Park Ridge City Council Committee of the Whole (“COW”) meeting, one of the agenda items is the approval of the appropriation of $187,000 to 13 private or quasi-private organizations or entities [pdf], all of which are “non-profit” and/or “charitable” in nature.

We here at PublicWatchdog are great fans of many of these groups, and can testify to their respective utility and desirability.  Every one of them contributes something positive to our community.  But these harsh economic times and the millions of dollars of budget deficits our City has been running give us an opportunity to revisit the all-too-common practice of local government taking the money confiscated from the taxpayers and doling it out to these private organizations.

In the case of this $187,000 appropriation being debated tonight, not only does it represent the City Council assuming the authority to pick our charities for us when it can’t even balance the City’s budget, but it is giving that money to entities who appear to be even less forthcoming and accountable about their own finances than the City government which is bestowing our funds on them.

For example, not one of the five organizations getting the most money – the Center of Concern ($55,600), the Senior Center ($34,000), the Park Ridge Teen Center ($21,300), the Fine Arts Society ($12,800) and the Civic Orchestra ($12,800) – posts its finances on-line, even though each of them has its own website and could easily do so.  If you want to get their financial information, you have to go to www.guidestar.org, where you will find copies of the IRS Form 990s (some of which are outdated) for all but the Senior Center, which technically is an arm of the Park Ridge Recreation & Park District, a public taxing body separate and apart from the City of Park Ridge.  That fact raises a serious issue about the propriety of the City’s contributing its funds to an unrelated governmental entity and taxing body.

So if, for example, you want to know exactly where the Center of Concern’s $708,422 in “government contributions” came from in its 2007 fiscal year, you won’t find it in the Form 990 or anywhere on the COC’s website.  In fact, the closest thing to financials you’ll find on the COC’s website is a list of its “Major Donors” [pdf] – but from fiscal year 2005-2006.  Unfortunately, the amount donated by each of the COC’s 8 governmental donors is not identified.

The same lack of information applies to the various governmental sources of funding for the other organizations except for the Senior Center – which has its financials included in the Park District’s budget.  That 2009 budget [pdf] indicates that the Senior Center is costing the taxpayers of the Park District (the boundaries of which are not the same as the City’s) almost $200,000 in 2008, and another $155,000 in budget year 2009.  

Rather than expound on our reasons for opposing the City of Park Ridge’s making charitable contributions with our tax dollars, we instead offer the comments of the late Rep. David S. Crockett, otherwise known as the legendary “Davy Crockett,” who represented Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District from 1827 to 1831.  When confronted with a bill that would have appropriated money as a charitable contribution for the benefit of the widow of a distinguished U.S. naval officer, Crockett said the following from the House floor:

“We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right so to appropriate a dollar of the public money.”

The full text of Crockett’s speech, and a biographical account of how he came to make it, can be found here [pdf].   

Whether or not one agrees with the principles espoused by Davy Crockett over 170 years ago, one thing should be beyond contestation: Any organization which receives public money should provide the same kind of transparency and accountability as is required of the public body providing that money.

And by that standard, the organizations whose handouts will be debated tonight come up woefully short, especially with the City facing its worst financial crisis in memory.

3 comments so far

I don’t pay taxes so that City of Park Ridge can give my money to these so-called “charities,” even the ones that I personally support. Davy Crockett was absolutely right.

It looks like many of these organizations become NFPs or 501(c)(3)s so that they can get public money to run the organizers’/operators’ hobbies.

I feel your pain. Especially in a budget crisis, government should look closely at every dollar spent. There are a few things that I would ask you to consider.

First of all, I am not sure about your use of the word hobbies. When you look at the Teen Center or Center for Concern and the work they do and services they provide, I am not sure hobbies apply. Many will agree or disagree as to the value of these programs, how they are run etc. but hobbies?

Second, as distasteful as it may seem, our tax dollars go to support a variety of what Mr. Crockett might call charties and you might call hobbies and have for all of my life (and I am sure all your life). The NEA and the Special Olympics are two that come to mind. I am not saying that means it is right but I am sure there are many more.

anon on 04.28.09 2:33 PM

I agree with the first commentator, although I don’t view the Center of Concern as a “hobby” because it has been around for a long time and has a budget of almost $1 million. But it does appear to be getting a lot of government money, so that is an issue, especially when they don’t report how much is coming from whom, or have the financials on the website.

I might not like that my tax dollars are going to charities, but I like it a lot less when they aren’t transparent about it.



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