For me, the low point of last Wednesday's Lehigh County commissioners meeting came as Commissioner Lisa Scheller was lecturing area nonprofits that they need to start tapping individual donors instead of just looking for government handouts.
Scheller was revealing whether she would vote in favor of awarding more than $1 million in Community Development Block Grants for local communities and nonprofit agencies. She and other members of the board's conservative slate elected last fall had hinted at the previous meeting that they were inclined to turn the money down because the program contributes to federal budget deficits and is inefficient.
She eventually voted in favor, but not before offering some pearls of wisdom to her captive audience about being more self-sufficient.
"This program is not indefinite," she advised the social agencies. "And what are you going to do then?"
She concluded by offering some story about a food stamp recipient pulling out a $100 bill to buy cigarettes, presumably designed to show that poor people are living too high on the hog.
I'm hit up regularly by nonprofit agencies — including some of the ones that made pitches at Wednesday's meeting — looking for donations, and since I know Scheller has a heck of a lot more money than I do, I'm surprised they aren't putting the arm on her, too. I suggest they get her on their mailings lists, pronto.
Fact is, nonprofits work very hard at finding private donations, which unfortunately have a way of shrinking when the economy is in the hopper. So I'm confident that a lot of these nonprofit representatives were thinking exactly the same thing I was. I even leaned over to one of them and whispered, "I hope you're picking up these good tips." Luckily, she didn't hit me.
News coverage of the board's conservative saber-rattling at its previous meeting brought out a decent crowd Wednesday night. Representatives of several communities and nonprofits pleaded their cases, and a few others in attendance urged the commissioners to turn them all down as a gesture toward ending the madness of government overspending.
All things considered, I was happy with the outcome. The board ended up voting 8-0-1 — with another slate member, Scott Ott, abstaining to maintain his political high ground — to award the grants.
On the dark side, some of them made it clear that they intend to take a much stronger, earlier role in the consideration of future CDBG grants, and the comments of the slate members suggested that may mean rejecting the nonprofits and any communities that aren't just proposing to meet unfunded federal mandates. I hope it doesn't turn out that way. If they're just looking to better understand the process from start to finish, I think that would be a positive.
I understand the argument that it would be more efficient to raise the money locally rather than funnel it here from Washington. As Ott said, "The Chinese communist government is fronting us money to feed 85-year-old elderly women in Lehigh County."
But I prefer the counter argument that we're paying a heck of a lot of money in federal taxes and it's good to see a little of it coming back here for projects that local officials decide best fit our area's needs. Including making sure more 85-year-old women aren't starving.
Raise the money locally? In many communities, they're already being crushed by rising school taxes — not to mention shrinking rolls of teachers and programs — that have resulted from Gov. Tom Corbett's decision to hold the state tax line by slashing education funding. In older boroughs such as Slatington or Catasauqua, many homeowners have been rocked by the countywide reassessment that this board insisted on pushing through this year over County Executive Don Cunningham's protests that the real estate market was skewed. Nonprofits and their clients are being squeezed by exploding demand and the shrinking wallets of potential donors.
Making all of them the victims of a pointless political gesture, particularly in this economy, would have been unconscionable.
I'm glad the board ended up — grudgingly, in some cases — voting the right way, but I'm not giving the slate a pass. Today's political rhetoric is so over the top that even the most benign program and deserving beneficiaries can be unfairly turned into poster children for irresponsibility. In this case, that meant not only singing for their supper, but enduring lectures from people who either don't understand what their real problems are or just are choosing to ignore them.
Believe me, I'm all for elected officials insisting that our tax dollars aren't squandered. But if a tiny fraction of my federal tax money can come home to help more elderly and disabled people live independently, more illiterate people pave the way for better jobs by learning to read, more apartment dwellers become homeowners, more struggling local communities meet federal mandates or modernize antiquated infrastructure, count me in. I think that's money very well spent.
Bill White's commentary appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.