SMITHFIELD — Town leaders are debating the town manager’s proposal to cut taxpayer contributions to nonprofits in half.
That would mean fewer dollars for battered women, economic development and senior services.
As part of a Town Council directive to cut overall spending by 5 percent, Town Manager Paul Sabiston has suggested slashing town support of local nonprofits by 50 percent.
The council has taken no action, and Sabiston said he just wanted to start the conversation on spending cuts.
The Downtown Smithfield Development Corp. would feel the greatest pain.
The public-private partnership receives more than half of its $200,000 annual budget from the town.
Downtown director Chris Johnson was hesitant to criticize the plan, saying he was sensitive to Smithfield’s budget woes. “If everybody’s getting their budget cut, it’s only fair we get ours cut,” Johnson said.
But Johnson did say that a 50-percent cut would have a huge impact on the downtown group, which would have little choice but to scale back some of the town’s biggest events, including the Ham & Yam Festival, the Christmas parade and July Fourth celebration. A few smaller events might disappear altogether, Johnson said.
“Everything comes with a price, and we’d have to look at the value of it,” he said.
In a typical year, the downtown group raises about $80,000 privately, with most of that money set aside for events like Ham & Yam.
The town’s contribution also goes into downtown improvements like sidewalk and parking lot repairs.
“We plan all those events under the assumption that we’ll raise enough money to cover our debt,” Johnson said.
“If not, we dip into our budget, which is for improvements.”
With a cut, the downtown group would have to seriously reconsider its priorities, he said.
Two countywide programs – Community & Senior Services and Harbor Inc. – also receive money from the town.
Neal Davis, head of Community & Senior Services, was critical of across-the-board cuts to nonprofits. He noted that his agency provides about $1 million annually in services to older adults, including transportation, housing and meals.
“Why would you treat us all the same?” Davis said. “You need to look at each nonprofit as a separate collaborative partner in your community and decide which ones have the most value.”
Davis said his agency pays about $15,000 annually to the Town of Smithfield for utilities, and that amount could grow.
Community & Senior Services is looking for a new contract kitchen to prepare home-delivered meals. The agency currently contracts with a kitchen in Wake County but is looking for a kitchen in Johnston County.
“Smithfield would be a logical choice geographically,” he said. “That could be jobs.”
Community & Senior Services receives a small amount of money from the town – about $2,500 a year. But Davis said it’s an important commitment. “We bring way more to the table than we’re getting back,” he said. “All we’re getting is a little bit of a buy-in.”
Harbor also gets about $2,500 annually from the town, and director Keri Christensen said she is thankful for the money. But like Davis, Christensen said her organization gives back much more than it takes in.
Smithfield is one of Harbor’s highest-need areas, Christensen said. Counting the helpline and shelter, it operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In return, it asks for a contribution of roughly $5 a day.
“For $5, we’re getting restraining orders, we’re responding 24 hours a day, we’re working with their police department,” she said.
Christensen said Harbor gets no funding from Clayton, despite the fact that it serves women and children there. She’s concerned other towns could follow if Smithfield cuts support, too.
“We also see that times are difficult, but it’s important that they keep us funded at some level,” she said.