COLUMBUS — The city won’t be providing funding for Keep Columbus Beautiful.
Columbus City Council members voted 6-1 Monday night against giving financial assistance to the local nonprofit, which is expecting a significant decrease in its state grant funding next year.
Only Councilman John Lohr supported helping the group out, and Councilman Charlie Bahr was absent from the meeting.
Also absent from the meeting were representatives from Keep Columbus Beautiful, and that didn’t sit well with Councilman Rich Jablonski.
“If you’re asking for $15,000 I think you’d want to be here,” he said after noting that the nonprofit also wasn’t represented at last week’s Public Finance, Judiciary and Personnel Committee meeting, when the funding request was first discussed by city officials.
Keep Columbus Beautiful Executive Director Vanessa Oceguera, the nonprofit’s lone employee, anticipates a 50 percent reduction in grant funding used to cover the organization’s operating expenses in 2018.
The group, which holds local litter and waste reduction events and promotes recycling through educational programs, covers roughly half of its yearly operational expenses with a grant from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ).
For 2017, the grant amount was $29,082, so Oceguera is expecting a roughly $15,000 decrease in funding for next year after the Legislature removed a large chunk of money from the NDEQ grant program for the upcoming two-year state budget cycle.
Keep Columbus Beautiful uses that grant money to help pay for expenses such as Oceguera’s wages, office supplies, educational and promotional materials, travel, insurance, utilities and rent.
Oceguera believes separate grants awarded specifically for events such as scrap tire, electronics and household hazardous waste collections will be harder to come by as well because of the reduction to NDEQ funding.
She also plans to approach the county with a request for financial assistance to offset the expected decrease in grant funding.
At Monday’s meeting, most city council members felt the city’s role with Keep Columbus Beautiful shouldn’t be expanded to include a monetary commitment.
Councilwoman Beth Augustine-Schulte said other nonprofits generate money through fundraisers to support their operations.
“I haven’t seen anything where Keep Columbus Beautiful has done the same,” she said.
Lohr agreed the organization should work to become less-reliant on grant funding that can disappear at any moment, but added that the nonprofit provides valuable services in Columbus that need to continue.
A memo from the city attorney’s office notes that state law specifically allows cities to provide financial support for nonprofits for contracted services, such as the agreement between Columbus and the Platte Valley Humane Society to operate the local animal shelter, or for economic development that benefits the public.
Beyond those two purposes, the attorney’s office memo states, using city money to support nonprofits becomes a slippery slope that could lead to complaints about favoritism or objections to how the funding is utilized.
Lohr said he could make a “weak case” that Keep Columbus Beautiful makes the city more inviting through its recycling events, “which is economic development as far as I’m concerned.”
City Administrator Tara Vasicek also recommended limiting financial support for nonprofits to the purposes specifically allowed under state law.
“If the city began funding nonprofits, where would we draw the line?” she wrote in a memo.
Keep Columbus Beautiful, which has an office inside the Columbus Family Resource Center, will request around $35,000 from the NDEQ for 2018, with the grant application due Sept. 5.
If a lesser amount is awarded, Oceguera previously said she may have to look at holding fundraisers, tapping the nonprofit’s cash reserve or reducing her own hours and pay.
“It’s not like Jan. 1 our doors would be closed,” she said last week. “We would just make some drastic changes to cut down on a lot of expenses.”