A question for voters and taxpayers

A question for voters and taxpayers

To the Editor:

At last Monday’s meeting [March 17] of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, chairman Walter Vail raised an important and thought provoking question, one that cannot be decided by our elected officials alone, but should be thoughtfully discussed by all who have an interest in fiscal responsibility and its place in questions of the common good. Acknowledging that nonprofit groups on the Island, of which there are many, contribute significantly to the social welfare of our residents, Mr. Vail asked what the role of public funding for such agencies ought to be, given the difficult economic times and the increasing burden of providing for citizens’ health, education, and safety. The increase in need for services for home health care, for fire and police, for education, and housing forces wrenching decisions for town officials who must balance vital services, fiscal stewardship, and those intangibles that make for a civil society, which increasingly are provided by nonprofit corporations in health care, education, and the arts.

The dilemma stems from a perceived conflict between what is properly supported by tax dollars and what is properly supported by private philanthropy. Recently, an opinion piece in The New York Times (March 16, The Rise of Anti-Capitalism, Opinion, p. A4) pointed out that nonprofit organizations typically receive as much as half of their revenue from fees, with private donors providing only about 14 per cent, while public subsidy of nonprofits may account for 36 per cent.  The thing is, nonprofits generally make every effort to provide services at reasonably low costs, since creating wealth is not part of the mission.

Public support, in the form of tax subsidies and shared facilities, is already being provided by taxpayers, not only to nonprofit corporations but to successful enterprises such as sports arenas, start-up businesses, and real estate development companies. It is a question worth exploring in the public square whether the common good is best served by maintaining an austere annual spending plan, or by supporting nonprofit groups that strengthen community and enrich the human capital of the society, or if in fact there is not an either/or dilemma here. And if the voters decide that they will have ambulances and arts, public schools and lifelong learning, highway departments and home health care, then how will this nonprofit sector be supported? How can it be made more productive, and how can scarce resources best be deployed by our elected officials?

Mr. Vail’s question is important for all of the voters of the Island’s six towns to consider, since most nonprofits are inclusive, providing services to all who can benefit. This is not the competition of the “free market,” but a community decision about what are the things that we share as a community and which ones we want to support with public subsidy as well as private philanthropy.

Grace C. Sullivan



  1. A civil society requires people to earn a living and pay taxes and provide for the intractably poor who should be a small minority. As society crumbles and people game the system, fewer people are pulling a wagon of more and more who want to be helped and feel entitled. When that happens as it already has in the USA, people will do less philanthropy, will care less about their social responsibilities and will feel more alienated from the rest of society. Compassion will morph into indifference and then into resentment. Because any government whether local or state or federal has an insatiable appetite for funds, it will not show fiscal discipline and will continue to argue that social services be expanded when in truth the real issue is that a larger group of people have become narcotically dependent on entitlements of welfare, food stamps, disability and anything provided them.

  2. Here we go, blaming the poor and unemployed again for all our woes, when the blame resides in the various social and ultimately political systems which are the real causative factors. $$$$$$

  3. This letter is a “soft lobbying” effort for passage of an article appearing on the warrants of upcoming annual town meetings–Edgartown: Article 31, Oak Bluffs: Article 26, West Tisbury: Article 35–“To see if the Town will vote […] to fund the Town[‘s …] share of the administrative expenses of the All Island School Committee’s contract for adult and community education in Fiscal Year 2015.”

    The author of this letter is a board member of Adult and Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard (ACE MV).

    Read “ACE MV turns to schools to fund Island adult ed program,” MV Times, December 18, 2013 http://www.mvtimes.com/2013/12/18/ace-mv-turns-schools-fund-island-adult-ed-program-18366/ to trace the genesis of the warrant article.

    Walter Vail’s actual comments sum up the situation:

    “I tell you, my one concern is that many of the non-profits on this island–all of them–are doing very good things, and all of them are suffering from a lack of funds, and I see more and more coming to the taxpayers to fund their operations.

    “And I would like to see some effort made–in your case an effort made with Dr. Weiss, and I see you’ve met with him, but–to see how these things can be done in a more efficient fashion, so that we don’t have to keep coming to the town.

    “We’re already supporting several non-profits as it is. And all I can see is that the non-profits are not making it. We saw what happened to VNA. That was sad. But I don’t know how we as a town can continue to do this, with the blessing of our voters. It isn’t going to work. I don’t see it.

    “And I would be willing to have the town debate this on town floor, but I can’t say that I’m really enthusiastic about continuing to have people coming to us saying ‘You really need to do this.’ I know we need to do this, but I don’t know how we can keep telling the voters that they need to say ‘yes.'”
    Source: Oak Bluffs BOS 3.17.14 (69:05-70:24), MVTV.org (Video On Demand)

    “Ms. Ditchfield said the program is in financial distress because it has been operating on “sweat equity.” As ACE’s only full-time employee, she said she donates about three-quarters of her time on the job.

    “It takes more than one full-time staff person,” Ms. Ditchfield said. “That’s where our business plan did not work. The idea in the beginning was that the revenue from courses could also meet the expenses for staffing needs, and it became very clear early on that was not the case unless we had a summer component, which we don’t at this time.””
    Source: “ACE MV reaches out to taxpayers for money to supplement budget,” MV Times, November 6, 2013 http://www.mvtimes.com/2013/11/06/ace-mv-reaches-out-taxpayers-money-supplement-budget-17916/

    So the “question for voters and taxpayers” is this: why should we bail out a non-profit whose “business plan did not work”?

    1. Agreed. Let’s have ACE print their budget so we can see where all the money is going. Is it just salaries? If that’s the case I vote no.