Cover Story

The NGOs

by Walter Pierce

External agencies endure the annual assault on their meagre public funding.

“There’s no way that government could be able to afford to provide the services that we provide,” Maria Placer says matter-of-factly, “and that goes for all the agencies that are service agencies.” The former KLFY anchor and news director, now executive director of 232-HELP, is moonlighting as spokeswoman for more than a dozen social-service organizations that receive roughly $281,000 from Lafayette Consolidated Government. That’s 62 percent of the nearly $453,000 LCG — and the Lafayette taxpayer — doles out annually in direct donations; 14 other entities — cultural service non-profits like Festival International and the Acadiana Arts Council, as well as annual events like Mardi Gras and the Christmas parade — share the remainder. Including in-kind donations like police security, utilities and public works, LCG aids 31 social service and arts/culture non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, with more than $780,000 annually. The figure and the recipients have, for the most part, remained static for more than a decade.

But that could change. An ordinance to phase out all funding will be voted on July 21. “What we do really is an intangible service,” Placer says, “because you can’t measure the impact of how much a life is worth, or how much training someone who is mentally disadvantaged is worth to be self-sustained, or feeding the elderly who are in-bound or house bound.” Her NGO, 232-HELP, is strictly a referral service: it puts the needy — those already on the margins and beyond the gaze of elected officials — in touch with agencies that can help. Definitely intangible. Unfortunately, intangibles can be a hard sell. City-Parish President Joey Durel has had a bead on eliminating funding for social service agencies since virtually his first day in office.

Placer, her voice wavering with passion at times, made a pitch July 7 to the Lafayette Consolidated Council, which will decide on the funding phase-out. This go-round, the funding, according to the ordinance, would be transferred to the Community Foundation of Acadiana and reduced by a third each year until — the math is easy here — there are no LCG funds after three years.

Following Placer’s plea and a short presentation by Acadiana Center for the Arts Executive Director Gerd Wuestemann, who represents the cultural half of the NGO equation, the council voted unanimously to advance the introductory ordinance sponsored by council members William Theriot and Jared Bellard to a July 21 final vote. Most indications are Theriot and Bellard don’t have the votes to get the ordinance approved — it was advanced out of a kind of parliamentary decorum — but the NGOs sweat it out all the same. “Of course this external agency thing comes up every year,” says Wuestemann. “We have after last year’s discussion talked to the city about coming up with a more permanent solution in the long term.”

The council’s vote to advance the funding phase-out came — ironically — on the same day Durel proclaimed this the Year of the Symphony, in honor of the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra’s 25th anniversary. That the ASO has survived a quarter century is testament to the value placed on culture in Lafayette: audiences are eager to attend, to purchase season tickets, to support fundraisers. But it’s also a testament to the city’s willingness to underwrite the arts, to make Lafayette a regional hub for culture and entertainment, to make Lafayette one of the cool places. The ASO receives about $10,000 in external-agency funding from LCG — a small percentage of the orchestra’s overall budget. But most mid-sized cities don’t even have orchestras to call their own, and even the symbolic gesture of ten grand can be crucial.

A problem for both halves of the NGO funding debate — the social service organizations on the one side and the arts/culture providers on the other — is that both are lumped together into one big fund; Faith House, which aids abused women and their children, is essentially competing with Festivals Acadiens for funding. Yet there seems to be no public policy governing how the funds are disbursed. “It’s very scientific,” jokes Performing Arts Society of Acadiana Executive Director Jackie Lyle. “They go to the spreadsheet, they click on funding from the year before, they paste it into this year. That’s the funding mechanism. That’s the process by which funds have been allocated for more than a decade. It really hasn’t fluctuated.”

Even Durel, who has proven himself a pragmatic politician, acknowledges the less-than scientific method to all this madness. Applications from the agencies go to Community Development first and then on to Durel’s office. But Durel admits, “I basically copy and paste, because in the end, after my first couple of years, I decided at some point, that such a minute piece of budget — such a tiny, tiny piece — it wasn’t worth the battle for me. I put it out there. I don’t get to make the decision in the end; the council gets to do what they want to do. They shift it around any way, so I just put it out there and let them do what they’re going to do with it anyway.” Direct funding of external agencies amounts to about seven-tenths of 1 percent of the LCG budget.

Durel is literally of two minds about NGO funding: he favors giving groups like Festival International and Festivals Acadiens money because there’s a return on the investment in the form of tourism — big time tourism — and the spending and tax revenue that go along with it. As Wuestemann points out, such events are tangible; the music wafts over the city, the streets get congested, the media get excited — it all coalesces in a long, loud weekend. But Durel also favors groups like PASA, which helps keep a city-owned building, the Heymann Performing Arts Center, in the black, even though that benefit is spread over several months. “They probably bring into the Heymann Center about $100,000 a year,” Durel says. “If I’d have had a customer when I was in business for myself that spent $100,000 a year with me, I would never have hesitated on doing something for them that would have resulted in a maybe 5 percent rebate let’s say, a 5 percent discount because they spent so much money with me.”

And therein lies the dilemma for social service agencies like Placer’s 232-HELP ($31,462 direct donation), and Faith House ($26,234 direct), Healing House ($15,101 direct) and Volunteer Instructors Teaching Adults, an adult literacy program ($5,034 direct) — for proponents of a funding cut there’s no obvious return on the taxpayer investment. 232-HELP does not bring in tourists. VITA doesn’t fill hotels. But Placer argues the return on the investment comes in the form of social service non-profits picking up a hell of a lot of slack. “You’re talking about an awful lot that government would have to take up, and there’s no way they could do it,” she insists. “There’s no way the taxpayers want to face the added money that it would cost them to take care of it.”

AcA Executive Director Gerd Wuestemann is proposing a model that takes NGO funding out of the council’s hands.

Photo by Ooti Billeaud

In the lot adjacent to the Acadiana Center for the Arts, dust swirls as a 100-foot crane swings a massive vertical slab of concrete into position. Hard-hatted men in orange vests scurry and tinker about, each attending to his small role in building a $15 million state-of-the-art performing arts addition to the AcA. Inside the arts center, it’s controlled chaos as more than three dozen children and teens participate in the Summer Youth Shakespeare Camp, practicing lines, designing costumes and building sets (see this week’s LivingIND lead story). The state of Louisiana has ponied up for this addition to the AcA, the funding is allocated, the theater will rise. But work today on this addition — another feather in Lafayette’s cultural cap, another reason people will drive from Baton Rouge and Lake Charles and Alexandria and beyond for our festivals and our nightlife — happens just hours after the council voted to advance the funding phase-out. The AcA is operated by the Acadiana Arts Council, one of the NGOs facing the cut. But the arts center is LCG-owned property, managed by the non-profit AAC, which receives just over $69,000 in external agency funding from city-parish government. And as Wuestemann points out, almost half of that allocation is turned into grants for other groups. Grants allocated through the AAC this year employed 99 artists who produced 141 performances and programming activities that were viewed or participated in by more than 45,000 people in rural as well as urban areas. That’s about 37 percent of the population of the city of Lafayette, 22 percent of the parish population — a wide reach indeed. “If you think about that kind of return on investment, of how little money it takes to provide this much programming and service back to the community, because we operate so very leanly, it really becomes unfathomable why anyone would want to cut this,” Wuestemann says. After granting out $31,990 to others, the arts center is left with $37,419 for operational costs. The center’s light bill alone is $72,000 per year and will more than double when the theater opens. “We’re managing a city-owned building and we’re doing it on a shoestring,” he adds. “We’re managing it with very small resources and doing an excellent job of maximizing those resources. Besides providing a professional service for the city, we also provide an extraordinary service for the community — in community development, in bringing the community together, in providing high levels of quality of life.” In other words, according to Wuestemann, this operation is so lean, you have to squint to see it when it turns sideways.

The genesis of this annual funding fracas goes back two decades — before Lafayette’s city and parish governments consolidated. Back then, mainly social service agencies relied on government funding of upwards of $1 million, and the left hand (city government) didn’t know what the right hand (parish government) was doing. Over the years, cultural agencies crept into the funding equation through the beneficence of council members. “It definitely has to do with who knows you,” says PASA’s Lyle. “I don’t even think there’s that much favoritism in here. That’s really not it either. It’s who knows you.”

The ship really hit the land following consolidation in 1996. Where the Acadiana Arts Council once got $150,000 annually from the Lafayette City Council — a definitely more urban and arguably more urbane legislative body — post-consolidation the purse strings were also being held by council members representing rural areas, and the funding fell as the council became a reflection of Lafayette Parish as a whole. “At the point of consolidation it became a more difficult sell,” recalls Buddy Palmer, former executive director of the AAC who now holds a similar post with the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham (Ala.), “because the decision makers were not consumers of the product, so there was no value really in their world view in supporting arts and culture. It just was not their understanding.” Call it a hick-up in the power equation. Not coincidentally — although they’re certainly not hicks (but who can pass up a well-timed pun?) — the ordinance to phase out funding for NGOs is co-sponsored by council members who represent more rural constituencies in Scott and Broussard.

“The public policy behind this is flawed,” Lyle says of both the application review process as well as the inclusion of both social service and cultural service agencies in the same funding mechanism. “It doesn’t work because you’re trying to judge apples and oranges against the merits of each other. Or maybe in this case oranges and free range chickens. It’s two different things.”

Wuestemann, a classical guitarist by training, has devoted no small amount of time to studying the dilemma since taking the AcA job about a year ago. He proposes a funding model similar to what’s been adopted by cities like Chattanooga and Milwaukee: The city budgets funding for NGOs annually, but that money goes into an endowment held by an outside agency such as the Community Foundation of Acadiana, which can then grow that endowment by doing what it does best — massaging Daddy Warbucks, i.e., individual and corporate donors; the AAC, on the cultural NGO side, would act as the grant administrator, which is in line with its traditional function. Social service NGOs would follow the same pattern. “Moving funds out of the council to the [Community] Foundation to then phasing them out represents neither a solution nor creates a legacy,” Wuestemann told the council July 7. “Let us also remember the recommendation of the city’s own [Lafayette in the Next Century] comprehensive plan to increase arts funding to a level at least comparable to cities our size.”

232-HELP Executive Director Maria Placer argues agencies such as hers provide vital services and shoulder a burden for LCG.

Photo by Ooti Billeaud

Ultimately, it could be Placer and the social service agencies that fall on the blade. While arts/culture is a golden calf, social services may be the sacrificial lamb. Durel has tried to eliminate their funding since he took office five years ago; Theriot and Bellard are gunning for them. What they have in their favor right now is being tied to arts/culture. Durel wants to fund arts/culture, which brings a definable, countable, demonstrable return on the investment — $6 back for every $1 of support by some estimates. He does not support the Theriot/Bellard bill as it’s currently written.

The push to eliminate funding for external agencies like Festival International, covered by The Independent Weekly over the years and online by The INDsider over the last week, has even raised the hackles of outsiders. In an e-mail sent to each member of the council and copied to The Independent, Tom and Karen Loro of Nevada City, Calif. — tourists to Festival International twice over the last few years — urge the council to maintain funding. “We attend all kinds of music festivals in California and we have two of them in our own hometown,” Tom writes in closing. “But I have to say that the amount of fun and good times available in Lafayette during Festival International pretty much slaps the #@$ out of anything else we go to. As it stands next year we have two vacations planned: Thailand for six weeks, Festival International for two weeks.”

For Durel, there’s only one solution: bring it to the voter: “That is ultimately the only answer there is to this, and I’ve told that to anybody who will listen, and that is, you put a millage out there and you go to the taxpayers ... If it doesn’t pass, you will have as a community told us you want us to no longer fund anything outside of this government. That, to me, is the way to ultimately get this out of politics and finish the discussion. The only discussion you’d have after that is who gets the money, and then you’d have to come up with a vetting process for that, which is, I think, a little bit better than what we have right now.”

But the arts camp is leery of this approach for the same reason consolidation was problematic: many rural voters — half the parish population — are suspicious of all that high-falutin’ namby-pamby cultural stuff. Plus, even Lafayette’s relatively weak recession doesn’t bode well for any tax proposition placed before voters.

Yet Placer isn’t so sure, at least insofar as social services go. “That’s what Acadiana’s all about,” Placer says. “The mayor said it himself: We are the only city in the state of Louisiana that has gained in population [since 2000]. And it’s because of the way we are, the people that we are, the flavor of this area, the fact that we’re a giving, caring community.”

The N-G-NOs 
Theriot, Bellard main proponents of funding phase-out. By Nathan Stubbs

William Theriot and Jared Bellard

Photo by Isabel LaSala

Last year, councilmen William Theriot and Jared Bellard stood alone in support of a budget proposal to zero out Lafayette Consolidated Government’s funding of non-profits, or non-governmental organizations. Theriot and Bellard have now taken up the cause again, this time in the form of a three-year phase-out plan that shifts the funds over to the police and fire departments.

“I think there is a better chance of it passing this year,” Bellard says. “It’s a matter of priorities. Once we have met all the needs of our police and fire departments, then we can start looking at funding for non-profits. Some of these non-profits benefit only about 5 percent of the population whereas police and fire protection is parishwide; it covers everyone.”

LCG contributes an annual total of $452,723 in supplemental funding to NGOs, spread among 23 different agencies.

Theriot stresses he and Bellard are not trying to work against the non-profits. “There’s a misconception about all this stuff with the non-profits in that they think we’re trying to do away with them,” he says. “That’s not the case. I mean, there’s a possibility some of these non-profits might actually receive more funds than what they get now.”

That scenario seems unlikely. Theriot and Bellard’s ordinance, up for final adoption before the council on July 21, calls for a 33.33 percent cut in LCG’s funding to external agencies over each of the next three years. The ordinance also takes the funding out of the council’s hands altogether, funneling the remaining three years of allocations through the Community Foundation of Acadiana, which would then award the money in the form of grants. The hope is that the CFA would be able to draw in private donations and, after three years, be able to continue at least some of the funding without any assistance from LCG.

CFA Director Raymond Hebert says that “anything is possible,” but “there are no guarantees” in what type of funding the organization could provide on its own. The CFA has taken a somewhat ambiguous position on the issue, wary about being seen as partners in a plot to cut funding to non-profits.

“We’re not endorsing or opposing this proposal,” Hebert says. “There are a lot of different ideas out there. And this is not something we sought out. We’ve been called to the table.” Hebert acknowledges another idea being discussed is for LCG to continue funding non-profits, but that the grants be awarded through the CFA, as a means of removing politics from the process.

“We’re only promoting that if there’s an opportunity for us to enhance this process, if there’s an opportunity for us to enhance the good non-profits that do such good work, then we want to participate somehow, someway,” Hebert says. “Ideally, we would like to be in a position to have discretionary dollars that we can grant on a competitive basis. We’re interested in enhancing quality of life in our community, and if our experience, if our expertise can offer some value to the process, then we want to participate. If it can’t offer any value, we really don’t want to participate.”

Theriot and Bellard appear to be facing an uphill battle in winning over the support of their fellow councilmen. City-Parish President Joey Durel, who is also opposed to the ordinance as it’s written, would consider vetoing the bill if it passed in its current form. “I think if it has any chance at all of passing, there’s going to be some amendments applied to it,” Durel says. “If it causes more harm than good, then I can’t support it. And I think what we’re doing right now is we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

In his first term, Durel proposed cutting off LCG funding to social service agencies, but dropped the issue when hurricanes Katrina and Rita created a greater demand than ever for those organizations. He still favors ending government funding to select social service agencies and revisiting funding for arts and culture organizations, which he views as providing a more direct return on taxpayers’ investment.

Theriot, a Republican who’s often shown a libertarian streak since joining the council, has used the issue in promoting a more minimalist government. “Personally, I do not believe this should be a government mandate,” he says. “Individuals should be able to choose if and how much they wish to give to these organizations. The government is telling you what you have to give money to, and that’s not what America is about.” Theriot also claims that fewer people now donate to charities “because government does it for them.”

“I know [the non-profits] provide a service, and they help people absolutely, and it’s a great thing,” says Theriot. “The only question I have is the mechanism by which they are funded. You name me any private business that goes out there and says, ‘you know what, I’m going to go to the government, you give me some money so I can get going?’”

Reminded of several examples of government subsidies that go to the private sector, including state funds and incentives now being directed to assist private businesses including Foster Farms chicken plant, the new V-Vehicle car manufacturing company and the New Orleans Saints, Theriot says he isn’t sure he supports those initiatives either.

“The thing is, is that that concerns me quite a bit,” he says. “There is too much of a reliance on government, in my opinion. We need to have people who are willing to be intuitive, do it on their own, be self-reliant. I don’t like to see it when people rely on others to get things done.” Theriot is quick to point out that he opposed the recently passed federal stimulus package, as well as bailouts of the auto and financial industries passed by Congress.

“Our major priorities in Lafayette are fire, roads, drainage, infrastructure and safety, that’s it,” he adds. “That’s the priorities of government, which means you have to take care of those priorities first.”

“Say you work for a business,” Theriot continues, “and your boss says, ‘OK I need you to go fill up the company vehicle with gas, here’s $50.’ You go down to the gas station, you pump $20 of gas, then you go inside and you buy a box of Twinkies, a couple of cases a beer and some lotto tickets and then you go back to work. Is the money going where it was really supposed to go? And what do you think your boss would tell you? In this instance, the taxpayers of Lafayette are our bosses, and they’ve given us money and told us that we’re supposed to use this money in a certain place, and that’s the main justification for it.”