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Nonprofits Defend Their Roles

Lebanon Council Wary of ‘Redundancy’

Lebanon — Nonprofit agencies serving the city’s needy and elderly this week defended their roles in front of a City Council likely to reconsider the way it helps fund those groups next year.

The comments were prompted by questions of “redundancy” in a budget work session Thursday night at City Hall. Representatives from a half-dozen social service agencies were asked by City Manager Greg Lewis to provide information on the number of city residents they serve and whether or not those services may be “redundant.”

Although Lebanon’s proposed funding levels for the nonprofits were unchanged in 2014 from the previous year, questions have arisen this year of whether the amount of money the city gives to the agencies should be revisited in planning for the 2015 budget.

The city has set aside $237,330 out of a proposed $52.2 million budget in 2014 to fund organizations providing mental health care, hospice and home medical care, substance-abuse treatment and other services.

Peggy O’Neil, executive director of WISE, which helps those affected by domestic and sexual violence, said on Friday that questions about the “duplication of services” overlook the nuances of providing social aid. WISE would receive $10,150 from Lebanon under the 2014 budget.

“I think when city councilors or any funders say that there’s redundancy, my question to them is, do you think people shouldn’t have a choice?” O’Neil said. “That we should have so narrow an offering of services, like, ‘take it or leave it?’ Because I absolutely do not believe that and I think it’s disrespectful.”

O’Neil stressed that the people accessing social services “have the right to make choices about who they reach out to and for what reason.

“People’s lives are complex,” she said. “The issues that they are navigating to try and improve their lives to keep themselves safe, to keep themselves economically stable, to live a safe and fulfilling life, it’s complicated. And how they connect with WISE or West Central Behavioral Health or The Haven is specific to them.”

Lewis said on Friday that he posed the question about redundancy because the concern was raised by the City Council.

At a budget workshop this week, City Councilor Nicole Cormen said that the organizations should “have a serious conversation about overlapping missions and consolidation because things are too fragmented ... There is a lot of competition for the same dollars.”

City Councilors Karen Liot Hill and Suzanne Prentiss said the city should revisit which organizations it funds and how those groups serve Lebanon. City Councilor Carol Dustin stressed that some of the agencies have been affected by the federal budget sequester.

Lewis said he wanted the nonprofits on Thursday night to “join that conversation, because it can’t be a one-sided one.

“If (redundancy) was real, then there’s a question of, should we make some adjustments?” Lewis said. “But it’s just the outside point-of-view, not the under-the-hood, and the people under the hood say, ‘Well, what I do is not done by others,’ then we don’t have redundancy, if they’re factually correct.”

The question of being “factually correct” is one Lewis said should be quantified by data.

“We’re very analytical about the facts on the table,” he said.

But the work of providing social aid is not easily quantifiable, according to O’Neil. “My caution is that nonprofits, particularly in human services, are very efficiently run organizations that don’t have adequate resources.”

“How much more efficiency can we look for?” O’Neil said. “Sometimes the discovery of what’s efficient and inefficient, while I think it’s worthwhile, can take away time and resources from nonprofits who are trying to prove that they’re being as efficient as possible.”

O’Neil added, “Our work is messy. It’s about helping human beings, not making widgets.”

The Visiting Nurse and Hospice Association of Vermont and New Hampshire, which would receive $59,400 from Lebanon under the 2014 budget, serves about 358 Lebanon residents, providing home health care, hospice care, maternal and child health care, among other services. Executive Director Catherine Hogan said that there “really isn’t much redundancy when it comes to delivering home health care.”

Hogan said she wasn’t bothered by questions of overlapping services and being asked to quantify the aid given to Lebanon residents.

“Maybe I’m a Pollyanna, but I have gotten the impression that what Greg Lewis and the city of Lebanon is trying to do is just to be as efficient and effective as possible with what they have to spend,” she said. “Whether you’re in a health care system or the social services sector, we’re in an economy where there isn’t any room for fat.”

Hogan added, “There’s no room for inefficiency. The kind of questions and the kind of scrutiny that the city of Lebanon is putting on this to me doesn’t feel any different than the scrutiny we’re putting on ourselves just to stay alive.”

The Grafton County Senior Citizens Council, which would receive $59,200 from Lebanon under the 2014 budget, provides services such as home-delivered meals, transportation for seniors, nutritionally balanced lunches at the senior center and outreach work to more than 1,000 Lebanon residents, according to Executive Director Roberta Berner.

Berner said she could not identify any redundancies, “at least among the group that was there last night,” but she said there could more room for collaboration on administrative functions, such as facilities management and human resources. She said that the comparison between what groups serve which populations was “a little bit like talking about clementines and grapefruit.

“It’s not comparable, and the level of service isn’t comparable,” she said. “If one agency is providing 24-7 care for somebody, that’s not the same as my agency providing a meal. You have to look a little deeper than just numbers and percentages.”

Berner said the difficulty for social service agencies lies not in gathering data on who they serve and what they do, but rather what kind of impact they can have on a given community.

“That involves a whole different level of research,” she said. “It’s social science research that none of really can say that we do with any degree of sophistication.”

‘Paradigm Shift’

Lebanon’s Human Services Department is in the midst of what Lewis described as a “paradigm shift” in its distribution of general assistance benefits, which help needy residents with necessities such as heat, medical care, and rent assistance. A year ago, city councilors raised concerns that not enough of the money budgeted for those purposes was being handed out.

The amount of money paid out through direct assistance has risen dramatically since then. In 2012, the city spent $22,656 on direct assistance. As of Friday, the city had spent nearly $76,000 on direct assistance in 2013, with more than $72,000 of that going to rent assistance.

Lewis said that the city has been spending more money not because of city councilors’ concerns, but rather because he and Deputy City Manager Paula Maville have grown more familiar and comfortable overseeing the direct assistance program. Maville’s mother ran the Lebanon Human Services Department for several years, and Lewis oversaw social services as a county manager in upstate New York.

“We’ve moved our game up, and we are now distributing benefits in a pretty fairly different quantity and quality than previously submitted,” Lewis said.

And Lewis, who has proposed merging the Human Services department into the City Manager’s office early next year, has called for an 85 percent increase for money budgeted to direct assistance next year: from $78,000 to nearly $144,400.

“The patterns have changed because basically the paradigm changed,” said Lewis.

Berner, of the Senior Citizens Council, said the kind of direct assistance the city is providing is in line with what New Hampshire state law requires municipalities to do.

“That’s the city’s obligation,” she said. “I don’t see that as replicative of what any of the rest of us are doing.”

Lewis stressed that the city provides the very basic necessities as it is able to, but relies heavily on the private sector for help.

“This place is just full of these wonderful private economic engines,” Lewis said. “And we need to kind of bring everybody to bear.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.