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OPINION: County should go different direction in funding nonprofits
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Tom Spigolon

A number of worthy Newton County nonprofits provide a variety of desired and badly needed services. Every year, they appear before the Newton County Board of Commissioners and others seeking taxpayer-funded grants from governments' annual budgets.

Newton County does not fund every one of them but the 11 organizations that received county money this year — and operate separately from the Newton County government — will receive $1.9 million in 2023.

At a recent Board of Commissioners meeting, questions were raised about why some groups got lower appropriations than others. At least one commissioner openly charged that the county’s budget writers appeared to single out groups that primarily serve “people of color.” 

The annual appropriations, in part, seek to help local nonprofits that provide tangible benefits to the community. But staff members said they were unsure what qualified as nonprofits under federal tax laws. They also maintained that they gave local organizations their chances to apply for the money before the budget was written.

The 11 organizations receive some sort of regular funding from local governments, including the county, and rely on it for continued operation. Examples include the Newton County Library and 278 Community Improvement District.

However, some are true nonprofits — as the IRS defines them under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Such an organization must be “organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual,” according to the IRS. 

Organizations like Nelson Heights Community Center and Washington Street Community Center are nonprofits that operate in county-owned buildings and regularly receive outlays of $39,000 or more that make up major parts of their budgets. 

Others that operate in the community want the county to consider them for funding but either do not want to go through submitting applications or believe the county should fund them just as it does regularly for other groups.

Leaders of one such nonprofit that is focused on preserving the county’s African-American history argued they deserved money for their annual Juneteenth parade as much as a private organization that organizes the annual fireworks show for the Independence in the Park July 4 celebration jointly funded by the county and the city of Covington.

In fact, at one meeting earlier this year, insults flew at one commissioner about what was communicated about funding the Juneteenth group’s event. County leaders ultimately gave the group money from a past year’s budget that covered their costs.

Yet another organization lobbied for county funding of its efforts to complete renovation of an old railroad bridge that will complete a 15-mile, multi-use trail between Covington and Newborn. The nonprofit’s leader said it would benefit the county by generating tourism dollars and providing a recreational outlet for county residents.

All the groups I mentioned benefit or potentially benefit some or all segments of the county’s population. At one time in the past, the county government stepped in to provide money to help allow them to keep providing those benefits. But some groups now appear to have their supporters on the Board of Commissioners who use the groups to make political points about larger issues in the community. It widens the fissures in our governing bodies at a time when it is certainly not needed in our county, state and nation.

And what about the numerous other nonprofits operating in Newton County that may seek money from the county government’s budget in the future — especially if an economic downturn lowers their donations from private sources?

I agree with at least one suggestion at a recent Board of Commissioners meeting: stop directly funding nonprofits. 

If the Board of Commissioners wants to give money to nonprofits, let them give a lump sum to agencies like United Way and let it sort out the appeals for funding and amount each one gets.

Direct payments to local nonprofits ultimately lead to time-consuming use of county staff. It leads to hurt feelings and nasty accusations about lack of fairness and favoritism given to some others. It also potentially can get the county government — i.e., the taxpayers — in legal trouble if one group receives less than another.

This budget year is done and this county’s taxpayers have doled out thousands more to some local nonprofits that provide badly needed services. But it’s time to go in a new direction.

Tom Spigolon is news editor of The News. Reach him at