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