Whatcom charter review to weigh ban on funding nonprofits

When Whatcom County charter review commissioners meet on Monday, March 9, they will remember what officials from social service agencies told them two weeks earlier: Don’t agree to a proposal that would end county support of nonprofits.

One of 11 amendments the commission now has in front of it would prohibit payments from county government to any nonprofit unless the county was receiving the money from the state or some other source.

The county supported dozens of nonprofits with more than $5.4 million in 2014, according to a report compiled by county staff for the commission. Some of that amount is spread over multiple years.

At a meeting Feb. 23 on Lummi Reservation, representatives of food banks and senior centers lined up to speak during a public comment period nearly two hours long. They asked the commission to reject the amendment, introduced by commissioner Yvonne Goldsmith.

Shirley Forslof, retired county auditor and current board member of the Whatcom Council on Aging, said Meals on Wheels has enabled seniors to stay in their homes rather than move to long-term care centers. The Council on Aging runs the Bellingham Senior Activity Center and the Meals on Wheels program for Whatcom and San Juan counties.

“Some (seniors) don’t drive. They can’t get out of their homes. By receiving meals each day, it keeps them healthy,” Forslof said.

The Council on Aging received more than $122,000 from the county over two years, including $117,500 for a senior services coordinator at the senior center. That amount includes salary, benefits and operating expenses, according to Mary Carlson, executive director of the Council on Aging.

“We depend on county funding,” Forslof said. “I can tell you, we’re very frugal in how we spend our funds.”

The council should continue to have the discretion over what services to fund, and how much, she said.

“If you don’t like some things that are funded, then go testify,” Forslof said. “Talk to your County Council.”

Carlson said at the meeting that the proposed charter amendment would force the agency to cut services or hours of operation.

The commission could deliberate on the amendment at Monday’s meeting, which starts at 6:30 p.m. in the Garden Room of the Civic Center, 322 N. Commercial St., Bellingham.

One speaker at the Feb. 23 meeting, Karl Uppiano, asked if the commission truly intended to eliminate county funding for social services.

“We don’t know yet; it hasn’t been debated,” Commissioner Joe Elenbaas said. “We’re getting a lot of information that will help us render some decisions as it relates to that.”

Commissioners are considering amendments to the county charter, which is essentially the constitution for county government. Any amendments the commission approves by the time its meetings end in July will go on the November ballot, where county voters will have the final say.

This story was corrected on Monday, March 9, 2014, to give the accurate contract amount for the Council on Aging.