Sussex County councilmanic grants. Love 'em or hate 'em.
Over the past year, grants have helped pay for picnic benches, signs, state championship rings and jackets, fireworks, Eagle Scout projects, restoration projects and school and community activities. A grant even helped fix the fountain on The Circle across the street from the county administration building in Georgetown.
Each of the five council members is allotted $35,000 – an increase of $5,000 from last year for a total of $175,000 – to support nonprofit groups and events in their respective districts. Groups send letters to council requesting money. Grant requests are vetted by the county's finance director, and each week, those that have passed muster are placed on the agenda. All five council members vote on each grant request.
It's up to each council member how much to award, but most grants are $500 to $1,000. Major events and projects can receive larger grants, as high as $2,500 to $5,000.
Under the county's policy, grants are awarded to nonprofit organizations that provide services or sponsor events in Sussex County. Sometimes representatives from organizations seeking money appear before council to state their case.
Repeat grants that are deemed annual requests are placed in the grants-in-aid program budget.
District 2, Sam Wilson: $50,790
District 3, Joan Deaver, $118
District 4, George Cole, $7,274
District 5, Vance Phillips, $6,706
It's doubtful all of the $175,000 in the fiscal 2015 budget will be spent. Council members usually end up with a balance – some much more than others because some districts have far more requests, so more grants are issued.
Last year, Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, had to reduce her grants near the end of the fiscal year because nearly all of the $30,000 in her account had been spent. She carried over only $118 to fiscal 2015. In contrast, Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, has carried over more than $50,000 in his account over several years. He has more than $85,000 at his disposal this fiscal year.
From time to time, some have criticized council for certain handouts, but no one has been more critical than Dan Kramer of Greenwood. It's Kramer who has been keeping an eye on council happenings for years.
Kramer has taken council to task numerous times over the years about councilmanic grants. “They are nothing more than vote-buying and should be eliminated,” he said.
He said new council members, who at first may be opposed to the grants, quickly become hooked on them.
From time to time Kramer also takes advantage of the public comment period at the end of meetings to remind council members that the money in their accounts is public funds. “The money comes from taxpayers,” he said. “Council shouldn't receive credit for giving it out.”
Some grants attract controversy
While many of the grants are approved unanimously without discussion, some create controversy and debate. Sometimes the controversy escalates beyond council chambers.
A firestorm was ignited recently when councilmen Wilson and Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, voted against a grant from the Lower Sussex NAACP Youth Council. The two claimed the group discriminated and said some of the funds would be spent out of the county at a convention, which violates the county's grant policy. Council still approved the $500 grant by a 3-2 vote.
Wilson said it's not fair to use taxpayers' money to advance one group over another. “When we give out money, it should be for the good of all,” he said. “Every bit of this is taxpayers' money, and it should be spent carefully.”
Deaver: Change is needed
Deaver is caught in a catch-22. On one hand, she says, the councilmanic grant process needs to be reformed, but on the other hand she realizes her district – where many of the grant requests originate – would suffer if she didn't participate in the process.
“We need another system,” she said. “I've never seen another government do anything like this. We need to remove the drama. The scrapping and fighting that goes on is so embarrassing to me and makes us look bad. We can't keep doing this.”
“We also need to learn to say no sometimes,” she added.
She says councilmanic grants should be part of the grants-in-aid program as annual budgeted items.
Since she was elected, Deaver said, she has tried to eliminate the grants, cut the amount in half and zero out account balances at the end of the fiscal year so no funds carry over. She said the only change that has been made is that the grant total has been cut from the $60,000 per district it once was.
Wilson: Sussex not in welfare business
Of all council members, it's Wilson who debates grants the most.
Wilson said he is more inclined to support groups that are doing projects to preserve historical sites or buildings.
He questions grants to what he calls welfare groups. “Why are we doing for people who should be doing for themselves?” he asked. “If we are not careful, we will be called Sussex County welfare.”
That's why he questioned a July 29 grant request to Clothing Our Children, a grassroots group of Sussex County volunteers who provide clothes to schools.
“How did people get by before we had this program?” Wilson asked Suzanne Worrall, a program volunteer.
Wilson asked why parents are not responsible for clothing their children. Worrall replied many of the children who take part in the program are in foster care, are homeless or are dropped off by their parents at relatives' homes with only the clothes on their back. “There are many sad situations,” she said.
Council approved a $2,000 councilmanic grant to the organization with Wilson voting in the affirmative.
Phillips: Grants provide seed money
Phillips said he is aware some citizens criticize councilmanic grants as wasteful and a poor use of taxpayers' dollars. But, he says, the grants provide seed money to support events and activities by local governments and organizations that can actually help limit the size of Sussex County government.
“As a fiscal conservative, I believe government cannot be everything to everybody,” he said. “Sussex County does not aim to build bureaucracies. For instance, we do not have a parks and recreation department or a social service agency. Rather, this council and previous councils have chosen to limit the size of our government and keep taxes low.”
Sussex hands out millions in grants
Sussex County provides many more grants beyond those handed out by council members. The grants-in-aid package in each year's budget totals about $7 million. Money is given to support fire departments, ambulance corps, local and state police, local libraries and human service organizations, among many others.
In addition, over the past two fiscal years the county has established a youth activity grant aimed at supporting countywide youth events and organizations that span over all five council districts. The fund was $30,000 last year and is $20,000 this year.