Hurricane Michael Debt Forces County to Cut Charity Funding

Bay County, Fla., expects to save nearly $350,000 a year by ending annual appropriations to up to eight outside agencies, starting with its 2020 fiscal year.

by Patrick Mccreless, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla. / March 8, 2019
In this Oct. 23, 2018 photo, Mark Ward surveys the destruction of his neighbor's mobile home in Bay County, Fla. AP/Tamara Lush

(TNS) - Bay County, Fla., leaders plan to end payments to certain nonprofits and charities as they face mounting debt from Hurricane Michael recovery spending.

The county expects to save nearly $350,000 a year by ending annual appropriations to up to eight outside agencies, starting with its 2020 fiscal year. Having already spent millions of dollars in loaned money on hurricane recovery, the county must keep future budget spending on essential services, officials say. Some nonprofit operators say they understand the county's position, but the cuts in revenue will reduce the services they provide to some of the community's most vulnerable people.

Bob Majka, county manager, unveiled the county's intention not to provide money to outside agencies during the Bay County Commission's regular meeting on Tuesday.

"We will not be sending applications to retain requests," Majka said about outside agencies. "Because of the advent of the storm, it would be good for us to take a pause ... maybe hold off on funding for a three-year period ... my intent is certainly to hold off this year."

However, there are 11 other outside agencies that get mandated money from the county and will still be funded. Some of those include the local United Way, the Bay County Health Department and the Gulf Coast Children's Advocacy Center.

Majka said the county would soon send letters to the affected organizations, telling them not to request any county money for the upcoming fiscal year.

"Unfortunately, because of the storm, our expenses have gone through the roof," said Commissioner Tommy Hamm. "There's a lot of worthy causes out there and to tell people no, it's tough ... but we have expenses that are coming through and we're having to tighten our strings."

The county has taken out $150 million in loans to help cover hurricane debris clean up. County officials expect to spend millions of dollars more on cleanup and infrastructure repair.

"And we've already spent millions just in overtime pay," Hamm said.

And while the Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to reimburse the county, it will only cover up to 75 percent of what's spent.

Joel Booth, executive director for Anchorage Children's Home in Panama City, said he understands the financial strain from the hurricane and doesn't fault the county for the cuts. Still, losing the county money will mean reduced services, specifically for the nonprofit's emergency shelter for children removed from abusive situations. Last year, the children's home received $45,000 from the county and used it to supplement the shelter.

"We supplement our operations and offer normalcy to the children like outings and trips to state parks," Booth said. "And we provide means for the children to play sports."

Booth said his staff would search for grant money and solicit donations to cover the loss from the county.

"But if we can't do that, certainly it'll impact those services," Booth said.

The Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida will lose an annual $50,000 because of the county's planned cuts. Suzan Gage, executive director of the nonprofit, said the cut would impact the nonprofit's child care services for working, low-income families.

Gage said the county money helps pull in matching federal money for the child care program, which typically serves 300 families a year.

"We're not sure what degree this will impact us, but we will have less money for child care," Gage said of the cuts. "Bay County is going through something extraordinary ... but there's still going to be those who are vulnerable."

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