By Joel Mongeon (The Landmark)
Help is on the way for Sterling citizens who are struggling to make ends meet, thanks to a plan that the select board hopes will endow the Neighbor-to-Neighbor fund with more donations.
The select board recently appointed Judge Patrick Fox as the new community liaison to the Neighbor-to-Neighbor program. Fox takes the place of former liaison Lisa Call, who resigned from the position upon moving out of town.
The Neighbor-to-Neighbor program was conceived about five years ago by Kevin and Marilyn Beaupre. The program makes funds available to Sterling residents who need extra help paying essential living costs such as grocery and utility bills. Families in need can apply for up to $1,200 in financial assistance..
According to select board chairman John Kilcoyne, Neighbor-to-Neighbor’s primary source of funds is the Roundup program made possible by the Sterling Municipal Light Department. Through this system, residents can check a box on their electric bill that rounds up the amount due to the next dollar amount, reserving the difference as a small donation.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot but all those pennies and dimes and quarters do add up,” said Kilcoyne, who estimated that the money from the Roundup program amounts to $1,500 to $2,000 per year. “The program cannot go too long on just that unless we have other donations.”
But the nature of the program limits the funds that are available to it.
“It’s not officially a nonprofit,” said Kilcoyne, “which restricts donations to it and completely restricts advertising as such.”
Because Neighbor-to-Neighbor is not structured as a nonprofit, the donations it receives are not eligible as tax write-offs for the donors. One of the primary objectives at the Sept. 21 select board meeting was to remedy that by discussing strategies to change the donation platform.
Fox said that because the Neighborto Neighbor funds are private and not public, they would be better handled by an organization that is specialized in charitable disbursements.
“I think the fund is perhaps a little too entangled with town government,” said Fox. “That’s not to say that the town shouldn’t have some general overview but I think it could certainly function and operate in a different setting.”
Fox suggested that the program team up with WHEAT Community Services, a Clinton-based nonprofit that offers support to families and individuals facing economic challenges. WHEAT is a part of United Way of Tri-County and is a 501C3 nonprofit, meaning that donations made to it are taxdeductible. If the Neighbor-to-Neighbor program were to fall under WHEAT’s administration, it could potentially receive more sizable donations.
According to Jodi Breidel, who serves as the North County Director for United Way of Tri-County, WHEAT already acts as a nonprofit intermediary that holds restricted funds for other charity programs.
“We already have a mechanism in place,” said Breidel. “We have process and procedures in place to be able to take the funds over, have them restricted in an isolated account, and…work out a process to ensure that there are checks and balances.”
For at least the first year of this arrangement the service would be provided by WHEAT without cost to the Neighborto Neighbor program. However, WHEAT would reserve the right to reassess the deal if their administrative burden exceeded what they originally agreed to.
“We’re not looking to have a fee for service…where we’re making money off of this by any means,” said Breidel. “It’s just something to put out there in the event that…there are more accounting factors and auditing issues that need to be addressed down the road.”
Breidel added that she does not anticipate WHEAT charging for this service in the near future.
Fox said that as liaison he would make sure that much of the necessary work would be done within the Sterling community in order to keep WHEAT’s administrative burden minimal. He added that in the new guidelines it would be “crystal clear” that whatever monies are contributed to the fund would be restricted for use by Sterling residents only.
“We get the benefit…of the association with WHEAT for tax deductibility,” said Fox. “[And] we still maintain a measure of control here so that we know all of the funds collected can be applied to people in our community who have the need. So I think it’s really the best of both worlds.”
Fox said that he will return to the Board of Selectmen once he has worked with WHEAT and the other administrators to draft a new memorandum of understanding that reflects the changes made.