Guest Spot: Transparency and accountability first

It’s true, I didn’t support the request the Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation recently made to the Town Board for $100,000 so it can meet the increasing demands for its services (“Funding request sparks debate,” Nov. 24). I made it clear then and let me make it clear again: I am more than willing to sit down with CAST and all of the town’s equally important human needs organizations to identify how we can have a supportive role for each of them. 

If we are going to consider distributing funding, we have a fiscal obligation to this community to create a program that’s thoughtful, thorough, transparent and equitable.

On Nov. 1, representatives from CAST came before the Town Board and asked for $100,000 in funding. In a mere two weeks, at the board meeting of Nov. 15, several board members were already willing to write them a check. Any program that issues taxpayer-funded grants to such organizations should require vetting of the organization, evaluation of the intended use of the funds, tracking of the funds to ensure compliance, a clear application process that gives all human service organizations equal access to apply for funds and a clear message of what the town’s goals and objectives are for creating such a program to begin with. 

The town needs to create the program, not the organizations themselves. Currently, no such program exists. I am unaware of any government program that issues money first and asks questions later. Originally, the board didn’t even want to require an application. Getting a yard sale permit in Southold requires more paperwork.

I insisted on holding a roundtable discussion with all of these groups prior to committing any financial help to identify the various needs, identify any inefficiencies or duplication of services and to ensure the most effective use of any funds the town may choose to distribute. I have no wish to micromanage any organization; however, the taxpayers have a right to expect us to ensure the most efficient use of the money donated, which brings me to an important point: Where are the funds going to come from? 

Is the request for a one-time grant using federal funds recently received by towns to offset the economic impacts of the pandemic, or are we being asked to create annual funding to be paid for by the taxpayers? If that’s the case, the taxpayers should have a seat at the table. To date, they’ve been left out of the discussion, deliberately or not.

I understand the urgency of the request. Inflation, spiking fuel costs, winter weather, etc., are presenting real concerns for CAST and its clients, but the many other needs organizations are facing the same inflation, the same fuel costs and the same winter. So, why no urgency there? Had we gotten the request in June or July, we would have had ample time to evaluate it and include other groups. In a bizarre twist, some board members agreed that only organizations “headquartered” in Southold could qualify for any financial assistance. That eliminates nearly all of the needs organizations but one. Family Service League, Maureen’s Haven and numerous others and their clients would receive nothing, not even the chance to ask. Any program must be transparent and equitable. This provision eliminates both.

Frankly, I don’t know how the town can best serve the needs of all of the not-for-profit organizations in Southold. I also don’t know what the taxpayers are willing to support. But let’s have that conversation before we start issuing six-figure checks.

Mr. Russell is the Southold Town supervisor.