'Willy-nilly' spending: Critics slam plan to use taxpayer money to back Black Lives Matter and charities

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Black Lives Matter protestors march through downtown Sanford, Fla., on Saturday, June 13, 2020. - Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Broward County commissioners again are taking the controversial step of giving away taxpayer money to charities and social movements — with this year’s list of beneficiaries including Black Lives Matter and New Florida Majority, two groups that prodded voters to the polls in the presidential election.

The commissioners’ spending — sometimes derisively called “slush fund” spending — has long drawn scrutiny. But the practice still has carried on during the past five years. This year’s spending, totaling more than $144,000, comes as some commissioners themselves have questioned in recent years if doling out taxpayer money to organizations is the right thing to do.

Government watchdog groups say it’s not the place of government to use tax dollars to fund political advocacy groups, or charities, of their choice. The county instead should give residents back their money, something the public likely would appreciate much more in these tough financial times, said Dominic Calabro, the CEO of Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit government watchdog group.

“We are in the middle of a pandemic,” Calabro said. “There are people who cannot find work who still have to pay their taxes.” Calabro added, “To use tax dollars in a willy-nilly fashion is not appropriate — it’s not even respectful — of hardworking families in Broward County that are trying to make ends meet for the whims of their elected officials.”

But proponents of the spending say charities and other groups need the boost, especially because their fundraising efforts have been restricted by the COVID-19 crisis. “Many of these organizations without the help would never get the support they need,” County Commissioner Dale Holness said.

FUNDING POLITICAL GROUPS

The County Commission’s spending began in better financial times, back in 2015. Broward commissioners each receive a yearly budget of $445,040, which pays for personnel services, such as salary and benefits of support staff, and operating expenses, such as mailers. The mayor gets an extra $25,000 to spend.

It’s been a practice that any leftover cash the commissioners have left over at the end of the spending year that ends in October is donated to groups with a federal tax exemption for nonprofit organizations, or is given back to the county coffers. The wish list comes up during a public meeting and the commission has to formally approve the spending.

Holness will spend $41,000 on 25 groups ranging from Black Lives Matter, New Florida Majority, the Sickle Cell Disease Association of Broward County, the Caribbean Americas Soccer Association and the Haitian Lawyer’s Association.

Black Lives Matter defines itself as a movement seeking justice and became nationally prominent after street demonstrations in 2014 after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York. The New Florida Majority describes itself on its website as “an independent political organization working to increase the voting and political power of marginalized and excluded constituencies toward an inclusive, equitable, and just Florida.”

It can prove to be “a big philosophical question” whether Broward should give taxpayer money to charities, said George Moraitis, the chairman of the Broward Republican Executive Committee. But Moraitis said Black Lives Matter and New Florida Majority are political groups that advocated for “defunding” the police, which conservatives do not support.

Some organizations define “defunding” as an effort to reduce police budgets and reallocate that money elsewhere.

Supporting political groups — even if they lean conservative — is unfair to those who don’t support those views, he said. “I support these groups to exist and protest,” he said. “I do have a problem with groups that are political advocacy groups getting taxpayer dollars.”

Broward County Commissioner Beam Furr also opposes the discretionary spending, saying any excess county money should go back into the county fund and be spent as needed. He said $26,000 of his excess office cash already has gone back to the county coffers this year, and $31,000 last year.

“These are taxpayer funds,” Furr said. “By doing this, we are picking certain charities and in lieu of that, not picking certain charities. People pick their own charities. We are directing taxpayer funds.”

GIVING TO DOZENS OF ORGANIZATIONS

Most of the county’s nine-member commission has given away surplus money or plans to do so in the next few weeks. Two of them, Furr and Commissioner Nan Rich, have given it back to the county.

Earlier in November, the commission signed off on Commissioner Mark Bogen’s request for $26,875 for COVID-19 education, Thanksgiving feeding efforts and a cultural student exchange program.

In October, Commissioner Lamar Fisher gave $5,000 each to Junior Achievement and the Lauderdale-by-the-Sea Tourism Center and Commissioner Barbara Sharief gave $10,000 each to the Mount Olive Development Corporation and Feeding South Florida. Sharief gave another $5,000 to the city of West Park for the Mary Kendrick Feeding the Needy program.

Next month, another three commissioners will ask their colleagues for their projects to be approved. Vice Mayor Michael Udine will give money to the city of Coral Springs for its Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship Fund to students in need; the dollar amount hasn’t been figured out yet.

Mayor Steve Geller wants to give $7,500 each to Feeding South Florida and $7,500 to cultural-oriented groups. And Tim Ryan said he will ask the commission to sign off on $27,000 for the county’s homeless programs.

In September, Commissioner Rich gave $20,000 to the county’s Broward County Animal Care and Adoption Center for spay neuter program; $20,000 to the county’s Elderly and Veterans Services Division, earmarked for grocery cards for low-income seniors, $20,000 to the county’s homeless efforts; and $17,000 toward affordable housing.

Rich said she wanted to donate all of her money to county programs that needed a budget boost, but “unless we change the policy, all of us are entitled to give excess money to charities,” she said.

Bogen said each commissioner should spend their surplus as they see fit: “That’s what we’re here for, is to help the community. We utilize taxpayer money to do that.”

Calabro says it isn’t theirs to give away. He said the county should return the cash “to the rightful owners, which is the taxpayers of Broward County.”

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©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)