By Cathy Salustri
So a man walks into the Gabber office (no, this is not a joke) yesterday and asks for walking directions to Bay Pines. Mary, one of the last few genuinely nice people in the world, listens to his story and decides that this man cannot possibly walk – after all, by his own admission he’d already walked to Gulfport from Bayfront – and gives him four bucks for bus fare. Except the bus costs $4.50, so I, for some reason I still don’t quite understand, chip in fifty cents. Mary gave him a cold bottle of water and wished him well.
We then watch this man walk to the bus shelter – and I have to admit, I am shocked – and sip the water.
For about three seconds. Then he leaves the bus shelter and walks behind the Laundromat.
A lively conversation ensued as we waited to see if he would return. Some of the office girls suggested I might be a cynic; I suggested I might be realistic.
“I don’t care,” Mary said. “I’ve done worse things with four dollars.”
She, of course, has a point. If this man was truly a veteran who needed to get to the doctor, then, yes, we absolutely did the right thing. If he was scamming us for money, well, then, we didn’t give him a hand up so much as a handout.
That’s the problem with helping people in need: it’s a fine line between a hand up and a hand out.
Even if you start out helping someone who has the best intentions, sometimes, I’ve found, that help becomes a crutch. That’s why unemployment and welfare come with conditions and time limits.
This is an argument my editor and I have quite often. Not about welfare or panhandlers, but about the fine line between supporting your community and becoming a crutch for organizations. I believe that Gulfport has many fine organizations that have developed a nasty habit of approaching the city with their palms open.
I watched the city council make some tough but long overdue choices last week in the final budget workshop. You will pay more taxes next year. Local police dispatch may get eliminated. You may pay more for drinking water. Hey, things are tough all over.
Unless, of course, you’re a business or nonprofit group in the city. That party has turned into quite the rager, unchecked for many years now. The Lions Club gets a waterfront building for dollar a year, a lease voted into effect while two of five councilmembers belonged to the Lions Club. The city pays $12.50 a month for 33 meters that provide power to the ArtWalk vendors who in turn pay... the Merchant’s Association.
The problem, as I see it, is that the city helps out any organization that asks, and for years now it’s been absorbing the costs. But what started as a way to help bring people into a floundering city and give these organizations a hand up has become something akin to organizational welfare: the money that should go to help draw new people to Gulfport now goes to maintain the status quo. A little help here and there has turned into expected income factored in to these groups’ operating budget.
My editor will tell you, as he has me, loudly, that cities (just like newspapers) need to support communities. I do not disagree. Where he and I diverge is with this public assistance mentality that’s overtaken virtually every organization that feels like Gulfport should pay their way. The argument goes that these groups do good in the city and help the economy. This has somehow turned into “we should roll over and give them anything they want.”
At the budget workshop last week, councilwoman Jennifer Salmon had the courage to ask the tough questions. Dr. Salmon and I are not, by anyone’s definition, chums. There’s a lot about the way she goes about getting things done I do not endorse. I will say that the woman deserves a metric ton of credit for questioning the city’s partnerships and what the city paid as opposed to what the groups do not. That couldn’t have been easy; no one speaks out against the groups that, as many have tried to explain to me with obvious patience, keep the economy vibrant.
But speak out she did, and I applaud her loud and long. She asked the city manager if no one had come up with a better idea for using city money than paying for the power for Art Walks. Before he could answer, councilwoman Barbara Banno, who has a business downtown, said that there were better ideas. Why isn’t the city using its earmarked downtown money for those better ideas? Well, because it’s using it to pay overtime for police officers working the Chamber of Commerce events. It’s using it to pay for the power along the street.
Take a look at the numbers: Gulfport’s Leisure Services spent over $114,000 for events last year, including many Chamber of Commerce, Merchant’s Association, and other business-bolstering events. (Click here to see the numbers) This number does not include overtime for the police department. By comparison, the city’s looking at eliminating police dispatch to save about $200,000. There are no such plans to cut the special events budget.
I am not saying these groups don’t provide a worthwhile service. I’m not even suggesting the city shouldn’t help out. I go to the Art Walks and Fresh Markets; I don’t want these things to go away. I am saying it’s time for the city to reign in its spending. When we can’t afford our own dispatch department but we can afford twinkly lights in the trees, it’s time to end the party. It’s time for last call at the cash bar.
Perhaps this is just the push these groups need to spread their wings. I know they may kick and scream – I’d be astounded if they weren’t actively seeking a candidate to run against Councilwoman Salmon in January and threatening to pull their (mostly free) ads from the Gabber – but I believe it will serve the city better if these groups have to pay their own way.
Oh, and that man who so desperately needed bus fare? He never came back to catch his bus. Which means the money we gave him didn’t really help him. But then, he wasn’t asking because he wanted our help.
I’ve found that people asking for a handout usually don’t.
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.