By Stephen Dravis
01:42AM / Thursday, September 20, 2018
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board this Monday is expected to consider a new application for non-profits seeking taxpayer money.
The three-page form was developed by a working group of the town's Finance Committee following discussions that arose last year after a request from the Sand Springs Recreation Center.
Voters at annual town meeting have for many years approved warrant articles distributing funds to the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce and the Williamstown Youth Center.
SSRC, which has operated the historic Sand Springs pool since 2013, was the first nonprofit in several years to come to the town with a request for support with its operational expenses
While town officials and voters are familiar with the process of distributing funds to private entities under the Community Preservation Act, those are one-time expenditures targeted toward specific ends — historic preservation and restoration, for example — that are spelled out in the act.
Members of the Finance Committee and the Select Board, which each review and vote recommendations on warrant articles prior to town meeting, expressed concerns that there was no formal vetting process and that Sand Springs' application may inspire other non-profits to follow suit.
Sand Springs' request ultimately received overwhelming support from the voters at May's town meeting.
In response, the working group of Susan Stetson Clarke, Stephen Sheppard and Michael Sussman met several times to develop an application that the group hopes to have in place in time for the fiscal year 2020 budget cycle. The Select Board gets full crack at the document on Monday, and a special meeting of the Finance Committee later this fall could finalize the language that applicants will face.
One member of the Select Board, Andrew Hogeland, joined the Finance Committee working group for some of its discussions and participated from the audience.
The application that resulted specifies the kinds of data that town officials plan to use to evaluate requests, including financial information about the non-profit, which can come either from its most recent independent audit, if available, or copies of financial reporting forms that need to be filed each year with the commonwealth.
The town also will seek data about the non-profit's existing assets and a list of its board of director and officers.
At several points, the application gives the applicant the opportunity to discuss how the program for which it seeks funds will benefit "Williamstown residents."
The working group discussed at length whether and how a non-profit could be asked to verify whether beneficiaries of residents of the town.
"We're sort of saying there's an expectation that they make a determination of the extent to which they're serving town residents," Sheppard said. "It's not fair to the town to use [property tax] tax dollars for a program that serves more broadly. 'How many are town residents? How do you know that?' We're happy if they serve other people. We just don't want to pay for it."
Hogeland noted that the question is not always easy to answer.
"If you're filling this out for the Friends of the Library, how do you know that you're serving all Williamstown residents," Hogeland said, alluding to the fact that the town's public library serves people from throughout North County.
Sheppard agreed that non-profits don't always limit their services based on town of residence.
"You could imagine someone running a food pantry having a policy that says, ‘We don't ask people their address because we think it's intrusive,' " he said. "I think it's reasonable for us to say, 'Fair enough, but then it's not reasonable to ask for town support.' If you're going to ask for town support, you have to ensure it's going to benefit town residents."
"Or validate how much is going to serve town residents," Sussman added.
The current draft of the application leaves it up to the applicant to address the question as it chooses, asking, "How will [the program funded] benefit Williamstown residents? Include the total number of persons expected to be served by the program or project for which you are requesting funding. How many of those served are Williamstown residents?"
The working group also was sensitive to the possibility that organizations could seek town funding through two different streams: the application under consideration and the existing CPA process, where requests are evaluated by the town's Community Preservation Committee.
"We don't want this to become an alternative to the Community Preservation funds," Sheppard said. "Organizations looking for things that could be funded with Community Preservation Act funds should be doing to the Community Preservation Committee."
The second paragraph of the "preamble" on the draft application spells that out, informing applicants that they should not continue if the funds they request they are making is more properly directed to the CPC.
In addition to seeking information on the applicant's assets, the application also asks for a sense of how much volunteer support a non-profit has.
"How do we determine this?" Town Manager Jason Hoch asked the working group. "Do I have a thousand volunteers who give me a quarter of an hour each?"
"I also acknowledge that's a big ask for a lot of organizations," Sheppard said. "Just getting an accurate count of the number of volunteers is more than some will have."
Ultimately, the draft application simply asks for the "number of volunteers" on a table with, at Hoch's suggestion, an invitation to provide "explanatory narrative" on a separate page for any data in the table.
If approved by the Select Board and Finance Committee, the application would be due to the town manager on Jan. 15, 2019, for the fiscal 2020 funding cycle. Successful applicants would need to submit a report evaluating the program funded by March 31 of the year following receipt of funds in order to be eligible for funding in future years.
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