In Hillsborough, nonprofits that get government money face new rules

But commissioners pushed back against the strongest proposals that could have shut out big enterprises and hobbled small ones.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Joshua Wostal. Times (2023).
Hillsborough County Commissioner Joshua Wostal. Times (2023). [ Times ]
Published Feb. 9

Hillsborough County Commissioner Josh Wostal hoped to change how local nonprofits get funding from the government — in some cases, money that could be spent on roads and public safety, he said.

Part of the board’s Republican majority, Wostal created a seven-point plan intended to bring transparency and accountability to nonprofits that have received $225 million in county money over the last decade.

The more than 100 nonprofits range from Bakas Horses for Handicapped to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, a major regional entertainment venue, according to county records.

Wostal told the Tampa Bay Times he was proposing tighter rules not because the existing ones were too loose, but because “there were no rules.”

But at their meeting Wednesday, a majority of commissioners agreed to only a scaled-down version of Wostal’s proposed guidelines. Three of the most controversial rules — including one that could have hit small nonprofits and kept new ones from getting off the ground ― were omitted.

Before the vote, Wostal said he would remove a requirement that said no funding could go to any nonprofit at which someone earns more than $200,000. That could have affected the Straz, ZooTampa and the Boys & Girls Clubs, among others, according to county records.

Commissioner Pat Kemp pointed out that some of those six-figure jobs involve “nationally competitive markets.”

“Some of these are really large nonprofits that do a lot of good in the community,” said Commissioner Michael Owen, who agreed with losing the $200,000 salary cap.

Some commissioners also took issue with Wostal’s proposed rule that the county would not fund more than 30% of any nonprofit, which could hit smaller entities and those just getting started.

“Which is great, right, on the government’s role,” Wostal told the Times ahead of the meeting. “I can’t find anyone who believes that we are in the business of starting up businesses, especially with people’s property taxes.” Nonprofits should be motivated to work on fundraising, he said at the meeting.

A majority of fellow commissioners weren’t convinced:

“The 30% (rule) severely impacts many smaller nonprofits,” said chairperson Ken Hagan.

“I think that would hit the smaller not-for-profits really hard,” said Kemp.

The third rule to fall: A requirement that a nonprofit’s work must address “a Core County function as determined by the Board.” The problem: The county has no definition of what constitutes a core county function.

“I’m not going to say it’s impossible to define,” said Hagan. “But it means different things to different people.”

Commissioners did agree that the rules could use tweaking. They approved a requirement that nonprofits seeking county money must provide their most recent IRS 990 tax forms and added a caveat that the requests for funding be made yearly — not just “recurring and baked into the yearly budget,” Hagan said. It was noted at the meeting that some nonprofit funding goes back years, championed by commissioners long gone.

“Many of these (guidelines) should have been implemented long long ago,” said Hagan.

The whittled-down rules passed 4-3 with Democrats Harry Cohen, Kemp and Gwen Myers, joined by Republican Hagan, voting yes. Republicans Wostal, Owen and Donna Cameron Cepeda voted no.

Nonprofits are funded by general fund revenue, which primarily comes from property taxes. This year’s nonprofit funding makes up about 1% of the county’s general revenue, Hagan said at the meeting.

Wostal talked about needed road projects and public safety concerns including human trafficking. He said emails from constituents are about concerns like fixing long-broken sidewalks. “That’s what I believe the money should go to,” he said.

The rules voted in Wednesday won’t apply until fiscal year 2025, and nonprofits will be informed of the new guidelines.

Hagan said he didn’t think most of those nonprofit entities had any idea their funding could have been significantly reduced or eliminated Wednesday. “I’m convinced most of these really have no idea we’re having nonprofit discussions,” he said.

Had they known, Myers said, “the room would have been packed today.”