Groups trying to meet cost of fuel

Howard nonprofits are scrambling after county discount ends

May 11, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Several Howard County nonprofit groups are banding together to seek ways to cope with rising costs for fuel and vehicle maintenance since the county government stopped providing discounted services for many agencies.

The groups are looking into securing a joint maintenance contract at a group rate and met with county officials recently for suggestions on how to make the transition.

"It does have an impact, but we just have to roll with it," said James B. Smith, executive director of Head Start.

County officials said they recently discovered that providing the discounts violates IRS rules, and they cut off the services May 2. The result has been a squeeze on nonprofit budgets, which has been exacerbated by the recent rise in gas prices.

"It's a big burden," said Karen Booth, a vice president at Humanim, a Columbia-based nonprofit that operates throughout Central Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.

The change affects 18 vehicles, which carry up to 21 people and are used to transport developmentally disabled people from their homes to services. The agency is facing a $30,000 added cost for fuel statewide, Booth said. Unlike for-profit companies, Humanim can't increase fees, which are regulated by the state.

The Arc of Howard County could end up spending an additional $10,000 annually, said Executive Director Carol Beatty.

"We are chronically underfunded in our residential program," Beatty said, adding that state funding formulas haven't changed for years.

Saying they empathize with the groups' plight, county officials are trying to help make new arrangements, said Susan Rosenbaum, director of the Department of Citizens Services, which administers grants to nonprofits.

Rosenbaum has asked the groups to make a list of their vehicles, fuel use and other costs for county study and suggestions.

The county distributed almost $8,000 among various nonprofit groups to help with higher fuel costs, Rosenbaum said. County Executive Ken Ulman has proposed increases in funding ranging from 11 percent to 21 percent for many nonprofits in his pending budget request.

Head Start would get $635,000 for the coming fiscal year - a 19 percent increase over the current year - if Ulman's proposed budget is approved by the County Council. The county also gave Head Start $959 to help with fuel costs until classes end for the summer May 22.

"I'm very pleased with what the county government has done," said Michael McPherson, chairman of the Community Action Council, which administers Head Start.

Still, he said, he's disappointed about the turn of events, which originated with changes in federal policy in the 1980s.

"I'm not really faulting county government," McPherson said. "The county government was placed in an untenable position because of changes in philosophy at the federal level."

Overall, McPherson said, the policy change could cost CAC programs a combined $40,000 a year additionally.

Head Start is contracting with a commercial fuel company in Jessup for diesel fuel for its four buses at $4.12 a gallon, nearly $1 a gallon more than the county charged. The organization also is joining with agencies such as Winter Growth, the Domestic Violence Center, Humanim, The Arc and the Way Station to explore a joint maintenance contract.

Winter Growth, which provides housing and day programs for 125 seniors in Columbia, did not get the county discount, but the agency is looking for ways to cut costs by collaborating with other groups.

"Our large vans get eight miles to the gallon," said Marge Burba, executive director and president of Winter Growth. "It's giving us a major deficit."

The groups say they are trying to make the best of the situation.

"We really benefited from it as long as it was available, but we understand the circumstances," Beatty said.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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