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Whatcom charter commission votes down proposed ban on funding nonprofits

Wes Kentch, the president of the Whatcom County Cattlemen's Association, and his wife Louise Kentch, center, hand out frozen bottom round roasts to people in need Wednesday afternoon, April 3, 2013 at the Bellingham Food Bank. About 1,000 pounds of beef was handed out in the second year of the program, put on by Haggen, Beef Counts and Food Lifeline.
Wes Kentch, the president of the Whatcom County Cattlemen's Association, and his wife Louise Kentch, center, hand out frozen bottom round roasts to people in need Wednesday afternoon, April 3, 2013 at the Bellingham Food Bank. About 1,000 pounds of beef was handed out in the second year of the program, put on by Haggen, Beef Counts and Food Lifeline. The Bellingham Herald

A proposal to prohibit Whatcom County government from funding nonprofits died in a Charter Review Commission meeting on Monday, March 9. But the commission is likely to pursue some other way of reining in government spending on social-service agencies and other organizations that provide services on the county’s behalf.

The idea, introduced by commissioner Yvonne Goldsmith on Feb. 9, came from then-County Council member Sam Crawford. He has since resigned to take on increased responsibility at his workplace.

Crawford’s proposed amendment to the county charter appealed to conservatives as a way to trim government spending. Representatives from food banks, senior centers and similar agencies have filled commission meeting rooms since the idea was introduced, to voice opposition.

“I think the role of government is to support low-income families, the environment, children,” said Mike Cohen, executive director of the Bellingham Food Bank, at Monday’s meeting. “To prohibit any contributions to such groups I just think sends a terrible message. It would be the only unit of government that I’m familiar with in Washington state that would have those barriers.”

Crawford, in an interview on Tuesday, March 10, said contributions to nonprofits increased too much last fall, when council was discussing the 2015-16 budget. He wanted to apply some brakes.

“I’m concerned that politicians use (promises of funding) as favors to various organizations,” Crawford said, adding council members might be trying to buy votes.

“We’re under no direction or mandate to provide welfare for those types of services,” Crawford said. “I’d like to see a limitation put on what we could do.”

The commission decided in a 12-2 vote to defeat the far-reaching proposal, which would have banned contributions to “charitable, educational, civic, homeowners, neighborhood, arts, trade, business, religious or scientific nonprofit organizations, or any other similar types of community organizations.”

It wasn’t clear from the language of the amendment whether contracts for services, as with the Whatcom Humane Society, also would fall under the ban.

Voting for the amendment were commissioners Wes Kentch and Cliff Langley. Joe Elenbaas abstained.

Kentch and Elenbaas had wanted to postpone a vote on the amendment to a later meeting, when the wording could be improved.

“There’s so much additional information that’s coming in to us, and I honestly think the wording that this body might come up with is considerably different than the verbiage that currently exists,” Elenbaas said.

The progressive minority on the commission tried to persuade fellow commissioners to cast an immediate “no” vote on the amendment so they could start over with it.

The amendment as worded was “taking a lot of the oxygen” from the commission’s activities by raising the specter of defunding the food bank and similar groups. Goldsmith has said she supported the food bank.

“From the discussion I’ve been hearing, (that) is not where this is going,” commissioner Todd Donovan said.

Crawford, the originator of the amendment, said defunding the food bank should at least be considered. The food bank became dependent on county money, Crawford said, after first asking the county for help paying for a new building several years ago.

“The food bank existed for decades without county support,” Crawford said.

Some commissioners said they were interested in an alternative proposal from audience member Delaine Clizbe, who ran unsuccessfully for Charter Review Commission.

“There does not seem to be a well stated, fair process by which these nonprofit groups make requests for county funds,” Clizbe told the commission Monday. She asked the commission to consider a charter amendment that would require the council to review grant applications from nonprofits before funding them. The commission has not introduced Clizbe’s proposal yet.

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.

The commission next meets at 6:30 p.m. on March 23 at Lynden City Hall Annex, 205 4th St.

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