They came by the hundreds Thursday to the State House to talk about the community work they do – often with little money and all volunteers – and to make the case the legislative grant they receive is well spent.
In the bigger picture of the $7 billion state budget, grants of less than $700 may not seem like much. However, to the agencies that get them, like the Scituate Preservation Society, it may be the difference of having hot water in their 125-year old building or not. Society Vice President Sal Lombardi said he was “begging” legislators to keep the funding. With an all-volunteer base, the society runs the Scituate Art Festival that brings in thousands of people and an economic boost to the area.
This year isn’t looking good for the non-profits. The governor’s budget allocates $8.3 million to legislative grants, the same as last year. However, Governor Chafee is looking to reduce the amount by 25 percent. Legislative grants have been on the firing line as the legislature’s means to handing out pork to constituent groups even before the Providence Journal broke the story on the Institute for International Sport based at URI. The newspaper revealed that the Institute spent $7.3 million in state funds over the years and how some of it couldn’t be accounted for. Talk radio hosts have picked up the drumbeat to shut off legislative grants.
That didn’t go unnoticed to Dan Corley, head of the Community Preparatory School in Providence. At one time the school received a $60,000 state grant. Over the years it’s been reduced to $6,750. The school raises about $1.4 million to sustain operations, Corley said.
“With few exceptions,” he said, “the money you spend for non-profits is the most valuable dollars you spend for Rhode Island in terms of what you get.”
House Finance Committee members, conducting hearings in two different rooms, heard pleas to level fund at last year’s appropriation, which in case after case was a reduction of 50 percent and more from prior years.
“We are cutting basic human needs,” said Anne Nolan, resident of Crossroads Rhode Island, “and it breaks my heart that we’re all here, hat in hand, begging for money to keep people alive.” Her plea was echoed by Deborah Debare.
“We are operating on a bare-bones budget right now,” said DeBare, executive director, Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which in the last four years has had its state funding reduced from $700,000 to two grants of $125,000 and $172,000.
“We all represent the safety net for a lot of people,” said Peg Langhammer, executive director of Day One, a Rhode Island sexual assault advocacy organization. “It’s scary that we’re actually sitting here asking not to get eliminated.”
In the basement finance committee room, Rep. Eileen S. Naughton, who chaired one of the subcommittees, heard testimony from 65 service organizations and received written testimony from many more. A floor above, Rep. Frank Ferri chaired another subcommittee hearing testimony from an equal number. Educational groups, arts groups, veterans groups, museums, historical societies and countless more presented their cases in three to four minutes, frequently without referring to a written note and with passion for what they do. Among the hundreds of non-profits facing cuts are Special Olympics, Waterfire, the College Crusade of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Academic Decathlon.
Such commitment from so many didn’t escape committee members who often thanked non-profits for their important work.
“What concerns me is that we are continually told that things are getting better, yet everyday I see a new individual walking in needing help who didn’t need it before,” said Guia Sanchez, executive director, Jocelin Community Development Corporation. “I sit here today representing a group that is continually asked to do more with less. We are sitting here begging for the same amount, when we could all easily make the case that we actually need more.”
With the Rhode Island economy struggling and unemployment still hovering around 11 percent, more and more pressure is placed on service organizations to provide support. Yet as the state struggles, the government finds it increasingly difficult to continue finding the funds to support service organizations.
“Community service grants allow us to provide over half a million pounds of food,” said Andrew Schiff, executive director, Rhode Island Community Food Bank. “With more and more people coming to us, any cut would just mean more people going hungry.”
As state funding is reduced, service organizations are forced to find other ways to generate funds. Multiple organizations claimed that state funding cuts place an increased burden on fundraising, and trying to replace government funding with private funding often proves difficult.
“We’re all like Oliver Twist here, asking for more,” said Joseph Manera of Big Brothers Rhode Island. “We understand the reality of the situation, but we would still like more.”
“I’d like to think that it’s an investment. We’re doing wonderful work in the state,” said John Deluca, executive director of the DaVinci Center, “but what you don’t pay now, you pay later.”
“I hesitate to think what the state would look like without us,” added Nolan, before adding the Crossroad’s funding has been cut by two thirds.
In difficult times, service organizations find themselves more in need than ever, however they also find themselves struggling to make ends meet.
“If we don’t provide these services, people simply have to go without,” said Raymond Watson of the Mount Hope Neighborhood Organization.