Santa Cruz County’s human-service nonprofits need more funding — even as budgets tighten all over

a 1970s photo of a group of women under a sign reading "women's health collective"
What’s now Santa Cruz Community Health started as a collective of activists in the 1970s and was part of a wave of organizations that benefited from local funding for human-service nonprofits.

When disasters like this winter’s storms and the CZU fire hit, Santa Cruz County relies on nonprofits to help those in need. Here, Lookout columnist Mike Rotkin outlines how nonprofits came to be so useful in our community and why they need our ongoing support, particularly with the county and its cities coming to grips with looming budget woes.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

Mike Rotkin

When natural disasters and pandemics hit Santa Cruz County — and you don’t need me to tell you that they do — it is the local nonprofit network that plays the critically important role in helping provide human services for the victims.

Unfortunately, as our local disasters proliferate and seem to come one after the other, the funding for the nonprofit agencies that provide the real and immediate relief for our residents has been reduced over the past 15 years as a percentage of city and county budgets.

And we likely have more budget cuts looming, which will mean more belt tightening.

When disasters hit, we get help from the state and federal government, from local governments and agencies (our four cities, the Metro Transit District, fire and water districts and the county government) and from Pacific Gas & Electric, which provides emergency infrastructure repair.

But the desperate human service needs generated by disasters — the need for food, temporary shelter, clothing and toiletries, child care and even filling sandbags, mucking out flooded homes, and helping with evacuations — are typically provided by local human-service nonprofits such as Second Harvest Food Bank, the Community Action Board, Community Bridges, the Salvation Army, Valley Churches United, the Volunteer Center and others too numerous to mention here.

In a recent Democratic Women’s Club (DWC) forum, representatives from some of these nonprofits discussed the role their agencies played in the response to and recovery from the storms that inundated our county.

Sadly, the capacity for these local nonprofit groups to provide relief from natural disasters — to say nothing of the ongoing daily needs of our most vulnerable residents — has been severely compromised by a relative decrease in funding from our local governmental agencies.

Most of the local human-service nonprofits were created when Richard Nixon became president in 1968, as a response to the defunding of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs of the 1960s. Initially, Nixon replaced that funding with federal revenue sharing that gave every city and county in the U.S. funds proportional to their population.

However, with the exception of the largest cities, most communities diverted that funding from social and economic programs to other local priorities. And revenue sharing as a program was completely terminated by President Ronald Regan in 1985.

Santa Cruz County government made its first significant contribution to funding human-service nonprofits in 1973, when the Community Congress was created, representing large numbers of low-income residents and other human-service recipients. Organized by Margret Cheap, a community studies student at UC Santa Cruz, and supported by the persistent advocacy of many newly formed nonprofits and their hundreds of clients, the Community Congress pressured the board of supervisors in June 1973 to create a $1.5 million fund for nonprofit agencies rather than build an escalator to the second floor of the county building.

This fund allowed groups to move from collectives of concerned activists to funded service organizations. One example is the Women’s Health Collective, which became the Women’s Health Center, and today is called Santa Cruz Community Health. In another case, Food and Nutrition, Inc. became Community Bridges and also spun off into another group, Second Harvest Food Bank, now the largest nonprofit food supplier in the county. Gray Bears, too, got its start with this initial public funding, as did scores of other activist groups.

Second Harvest Food Bank's "Hunger Heroes" trucks.
Second Harvest Food Bank’s “Hunger Heroes” trucks transport hundreds of pounds of food across the county.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s important to understand the extent to which the new funding was a result of community organizing and militant nonviolent advocacy work by the nonprofits.

An example of the strength of this advocacy work was Food and Nutrition, Inc., which in 1972 bused 200 seniors to Sacramento for a sit-in at the Secretary of Welfare’s office. Also in the early 1970s, the Women’s Health Collective published a biweekly feminist newsletter about abortion and other women’s health issues. And the Community Action Board sponsored a school breakfast program for low-income students modeled on the Black Panther breakfast program in Oakland.

The funding of nonprofit human service agencies came a little later to the cities of Santa Cruz County. When the progressives won the elections of 1979 and 1981, and secured a majority of the seats on the Santa Cruz City Council, our first budget increased city funding of human-service nonprofits from $80,000 a year to $522,000. In subsequent annual budgets, the amount for human-service funding was increased to $750,000, then $1 million, and eventually rose to $2 million a year.

Traditionally, county governments in California are responsible for funding health and human services, but the progressives in Santa Cruz, pressured by huge turnouts of human-service clients at every budget hearing, wanted everyone in our community to have access to the basic necessities of life. Although the other three cities in Santa Cruz have never made as large a commitment as the City of Santa Cruz to human service funding, all of them now contribute to such funding.

For example, in 2022-23 budgets, Santa Cruz devoted about $2 million of its $112 million general-fund budget to nonprofit funding — or about 1.8%. Capitola, on the other hand, allotted $156,000 of its $18.2 million general-fund budget (0.9%), while Watsonville set aside $272,600 of its $58.4 million budget (0.5%). Scotts Valley is hard to determine as there is not a budget line for nonprofits in its $24 milliongeneral-fund budget.

Fiscal realities prohibit local governments from fully paying employees what they really deserve. Still, in our community, it was important to signal to these employees and the unions that represent them that the funding of nonprofits was not coming at their expense.

Consequently, in 1983, the nonprofit organizations, the city and the county reached a tacit agreement that held for more than 20 years that nonprofit funding would not increase at a rate faster than the increase in pay for city and county employees.

This is the sort of quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations that go on at budget time. There is no formal policy and no one is forced to vote that way. You have a conversation and agree.

As a result, when city employees got pay increases, the nonprofit agencies got roughly the same percentage increase in funding. When recessions caused pay for city and county employees to temporarily stagnate or even decline, nonprofits faced the same fiscal constraints.

Funding for particular agencies and their programs might go up or down, but the overall funding of the human-service sector was protected. This meant that funding for nonprofits generally stayed consistent as a percentage of the city and county budgets. Generally, as in the 2022 numbers, funding for nonprofits usually make up less than 2% of the overall budgets.

Unfortunately, progressive elected officials and nonprofit agencies became complacent about the need for advocacy work by these agencies.

Facing pressure to maximize their delivery of actual services and a sense that the local governments were committed to funding human services, agreements were worked out to have the executive director of each agency and perhaps one client come to budget hearings each year rather than mobilizing their entire client base as had been done to initially get local governments to fund the agencies. Instead of a day or two of the week-plus of budget hearings focused on human-service funding, their slot in the budget hearing schedule was reduced to a couple of hours.

As a result, when budget constraints forced difficult decisions on funding priorities, it became a lot easier to make cuts to the human-service portion of the budget. It is fair to say that no local government has abandoned its commitment to funding human services, and in some years there is even an absolute increase in the funding level for these programs.

However, as a percentage of the overall budget, funding for nonprofit human service agencies has been on the decline over the past two decades.

I certainly don’t want to argue that human-service funding is the only priority for local government, and we can’t just stop funding our local roads, police, fire or parks.

But certainly a hungry child, a farmworker family flooded out of their home, a person in need of mental health support who is suffering and acting out in our public spaces should be at least as high a priority as filling a pothole.

As we enter what could be a contentious budget season, I hope you’ll join me in encouraging our local nonprofits to increase their advocacy work on behalf of their clients and in putting pressure on our local elected officials to hold the line on human-service funding, even when that is not so easy to do.

More from Community Voices