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Consider foundation to support nonprofits

May 10, 2007

Why should government contribute tax dollars to charities that taxpayers might not want to fund?

It's a question we hear every year as local governments deliberate their general fund budgets - and requests from nonprofit organizations.

The Washington County Commissioners discussed such contributions Tuesday at their regular weekly meeting.

The first and best reason for governments to pitch in is that without the services that nonprofits provide, taxpayers would surely have to do more.

For example, Washington County's Meals on Wheels program allows seniors to postpone the time when they will need nursing home care that is subsidized in part with state tax dollars.

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Providing nutritious meals also keeps seniors healthy and out of the local emergency room. Fewer emergency room visits translate into savings for other patients and their insurance companies.

Even those contributions that don't fund direct services have a value. The Washington County Arts Council's gallery provides citizens with one more reason to come to downtown Hagerstown and contributes to the city's Arts & Entertainment District.

As for Washington County's Historical Society, not only does it allow citizens to learn how those who came before them contributed to what is here now, but it also preserves sites that draw tourists or enhance their visits.

The problem with all of these requests is that they are not for one-time capital projects, but for ongoing operating expenses.

And although there is no "maintenance of effort" rule for such donations, elected officials know that once they've approved a certain level of funding, they risk looking heartless if they cut it in the future.

Our suggestion: With more than $17 million in new revenues expected this year, create an account with the Community Foundation of Washington County.

Proceeds from the fund would be distributed to nonprofits on the county's list of approved charities. Citizens could also add to the fund, knowing that government couldn't use the cash for any other purpose.

Elected officials lead by example when they approve charitable contributions. A foundation account would ensure that lean times wouldn't mean cuts for those who are least able to afford them.

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