By Jesse Wood
During budget season in Watauga County, the topic of funding nonprofits usually draws a crowd before the Watauga County Board of Commissioners during public hearings on the budget in spring.
In the previous four budget cycles, former Chair Nathan Miller, a Republican lawyer who is a staunch advocate for a nonprofit “standing on its own,” was quick to vote for a zero in many of the nonprofit appropriation columns.
“I have a philosophy that doesn’t jive with this,” Miller said in a budget work session in 2014.
This year might be a bit different with new Chair Jimmy Hodges, who is also a Republican on the GOP-led board.
At a budget retreat in late February, Hodges said he was OK with funding $10,000 to the Hospitality House, Appalachian Theatre of the High Country and the Southern Appalachian Historical Association (SAHA) in the 2015-16 – at least initially, knowing that he could change his mind during the budget work sessions in May.
In the past, GOP Commissioner Perry Yates, who is a big supporter of the arts and local heritage, has sided with Democrats to fund some nonprofits – or at least meet them in the middle. Yates has voted to fund SAHA (even while voicing concerns that the Town of Boone has let the property deteriorate) in the past but not the Hospitality House. Yates did express concerns about taxpayer funding for restoration of the Appalachian Theatre – in light of the foreclosed Hayes Center in Blowing Rock, the lack of parking in downtown Boone and ongoing conflict with the town’s noise ordinance.
Democrat Commissioner Billy Kennedy disagreed with Yates’ assessment of the theatre project. He said if the county threw in some money, it would help leverage grants and improve fundraising by showing that the county is on board with the project. After Kennedy suggested that the commissioners invite a representative of the Appalachian Theatre group to speak before the commissioners and respond to any concerns, the board directed County Manager Deron Geouque to reach out to the group.
The Watauga County Board of Commissioners haven’t funded the Hospitality House since the 2010-11 fiscal year. The Appalachian Theatre of the High Country hasn’t been funded either, but it is a relatively new organization that is expected to go public with its fundraising goal in late summer or fall. SAHA, on the other hand, has received at least $12,000 from the commissioners for years.
In crafting the budget before the commissioners go over it likely one last time during budget work sessions in May, County Manager Deron Geouque and Finance Director Margaret Pierce set recommended funding levels to nonprofits that are about equal to what commissioners decided to give nonprofits in the past.
During the retreat, he asked if the general consensus of the board was to fund $10,000 to those three groups.
Hodges, for example, noted that it would be a “good faith” move to give the Appalachian Theatre of the High Country, which is restoring the old theatre on King Street, some funding. He also said he was OK for now with funding the other two groups.
On Tuesday, Geouque – in an email – said that recommended funding levels will “look similar” to what nonprofits received last year with the addition of $10,000 each for Hospitality House, Appalachian Theater and SAHA.
But during the budget work sessions in May, the commissioners will talk in much greater length about funding each of the nonprofits on the list. The commissioners will go down the list, line by line, and vote on funding for all of the agencies listed as they comb through the budget.
See funding levels to nonprofits for the past seven years in a chart below. (Note that with the $79,482 to the Watauga Humane Society, the county is obligated to pay this since it cares for animals brought in by Watauga County Animal Care and Control.)