Social Services: Handling Requests Fairly, Efficiently
(from Maine Townsman, November 1992)
By Michael L. Starn, Editor

While not comprising a particularly large expenditure of local funds, social service agency requests are often the most hotly debated items at town meetings or at council budget sessions. Much of this debate is emotional and funding decisions are often made without the benefit of a systematic and objective analysis of the merits of each request.

In many municipalities the social service agency requests go directly to the legislative body—town meeting or council—without any meaningful input from staff, selectmen or a "social services-advisory committee. Letting the town meeting decide on each request submitted with no reviewing body, may be the most democratic way of handling requests, but can also be unwieldy and may result in an emotional rather than rational vote on the warrant article.

Some municipalities require agencies to obtain letters of support or enough signatures to get on the town meeting warrant by petition; others require that representatives of the agency be present at town meeting to defend their request; some publish every letter requesting funds in the town report; and still others simply say "no" to either all agencies or any new ones.

This purpose of this article is to outline a review process that utilizes a "social services" advisory committee. This committee would be charged with developing a policy on social service agency funding, prioritizing social service needs in the community, evaluating social service agency requests and recommending a level of funding to the legislative body of the municipality. Obviously, the budget committee and/or board of selectmen could take on the responsibility of dealing with these funding requests by themselves, and in many instances they do. On the other hand, a social services advisory committee to review and prioritize requests could prove very helpful to these boards and allow them more time to concentrate their efforts on some of the larger municipal budget items.

Establishing A Social Services Policy

Communities generally have one of two views regarding social service agency requests: either they are open to the prospect of appropriating local dollars for charitable or social service purposes, or they have closed the door, or are closing it, on all social service agency requests. Some communities will support agencies that have received funding in the past, but won't honor any new requests.

A policy of refusing all social service agency requests may appear rather convenient to some in this tough economy, but to others isolationist, or even cold-hearted. The reality is that for some municipalities, it's a matter of longstanding philosophy and practical necessity.

"We refer all (social service) agency requests to the Human Services part of the county budget," says Robert Benson, town manager of Cumberland.

The policy, according to Benson, was put into place after a marathon session of the town council several years ago when it was trying to fairly and efficiently handle a large number of social service agency requests.

After that session, says Benson, the Cumberland Town Council decided that social service agency requests were not appropriate issues for the council to consider. The council, instead, adopted the policy of referring agencies to the county where, says Benson, "they are better able to deal with the requests."

Cumberland County has a human services budget of over $300,000 and works with many of the social service agencies that request funding from the municipalities within the county.

According to others, municipal contributions to charitable organizations effectively duplicates the contributions that many taxpayers have already made, privately, to the same agencies. To duplicate the contribution unfairly burdens the taxpayers who have individually donated.

Other communities argue that by being (property) tax exempt, social service agencies are already being supported by the municipality.

"How do you make a (funding) decision?" asks Benson. "We were never able to come up with a satisfactory way of dealing fairly with these agencies or prioritizing their requests.

For those municipal officials who do see a role for local government in social service agency funding, they will need to identify and prioritize the social service needs of the community.

Prioritizing Social Service Needs

If there is going to be municipal funding of social service agency requests, it should be done as even-handedly as possible. And, if a municipality is going to fund these requests, they should be matching the requests to the needs of the community.

Identifying and prioritizing a community's social service needs does not require an elaborate process. The community may want to rely on its welfare director for guidance, because it is the welfare director or GA administrator who deals on a daily basis with these agencies and therefore would be in a good position to provide valuable assistance to the legislative body regarding each agency's request. Another option for a community would be to form a social services advisory committee to inventory the needs of the community, study the legitimacy of the various agency requests, and make recommendations to the town meeting or council.

The review committee will need to have a good sense of what the community's human services needs are. This can be accomplished by making sure a good cross-section of citizens are appointed to the committee, people who will represent a variety of interests and views and may have a specialized knowledge of social service programs. If the committee felt it necessary, a survey of the community to help establish its social and human services priorities might be appropriate.

Evaluating The Requests

Agency requests vary significantly in the types of services offered and the funding being requested. Transportation services, domestic violence, substance abuse counseling, hospice care, YMCA, Boy Scouts and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, they are but a few examples of the types of organizations which request funds from municipalities. They, and other agencies not mentioned, all provide very worthwhile social services, but local governments do not have an unlimited supply of money to fund every agency that may request support.

How does a community decide which requests will be funded and to what extent? A process for evaluating social service requests should be established to ensure fair and equitable treatment of the agencies that come to the town.

The initial step in setting up an evaluation process for social service requests is to arrange for a uniform application procedure. This should involve the creation of a standardized form on which requests are submitted. Or, you could have requests submitted on agency letterhead and then transfer the information onto the municipality's standardized form.

It should be clearly understood by agencies as to how to apply for funding, when to apply and what criteria will be used to evaluate funding requests. Also, if you are going to use a standardized form or rate the requests according to some established criteria, then you will want to let the agency know about the evaluation process.

A checklist of information categories you would want to include on the agency request form are: name of agency, agency address and contact, amount of request, historical municipal contributions to the agency, what services this funding would help to provide, how many people in the community would be served, references, a summary budget sheet itemizing agency revenues and expenditures, and other relevant financial information about the agency.

The next step in the process is for the review committee to establish criteria for evaluating the social service agency requests. Each criterion should be ranked according to its importance, and requests for funding should be graded on how well they meet the criteria. Examples of criteria which might be used could be: total budget of agencies; sources of core funding; availability of references or grant compliance documentation from county, state or federal agencies which monitor grant disbursements, amount of budget going toward administrative overhead (or non-service delivery); comparisons with similar providers in other regions; if not confidential, ask to get references from clients of agency; other letters of reference should be requested from people familiar with the agency.

If a personal interview with the agency is deemed necessary, it might be wise to have those interviews with the advisory committee rather than the legislative body or selectmen or budget committee.

Recommended Funding

How do you compare one social service agency's request to another's, when their services are so different? For example, substance abuse counseling and transportation services for the elderly, both are very worthwhile programs. But, it's comparing apples to oranges. How do you choose?

It might be wise for the committee to set a "social services" budget beforehand. This should be done in consultation with the budget committee and board of selectmen.

All of these agencies will have compelling reasons as to why their requests should be funded. But, municipalities, as stated before, have limited budgets and sometimes worthwhile requests may have to be turned down.

Even though the amounts may be small, relative to other budget items, social service agency requests should be given the same rational consideration as you would roads, solid waste, or public safety.