Front Row Seat: Debate over Aurora food pantry donations brings up difficult question

by MIKE LESKO | REPORTER Published:

Councilman John Kudley said he felt like a TV character trying to make up his mind what to do. He said on one shoulder, he envisioned a little devil saying, "Do this," and on the other shoulder, there was a small angel saying, "Do that." And he was being torn by the decision facing him.

The decision was whether Aurora taxpayer dollars should support a private charity. Ultimately, City Council voted 7-1 on Jan. 27 to once again donate $12,000 in 2014 to the Volunteers of America food pantry, with Kudley voting no. Yet the road to that verdict was not easy.

"The private citizen in me says, 'Yes, of course, support the food bank,'" Kudley said. "The elected official in me says, 'You can't do that with public money.' So I'm torn by the issue."

Kudley said when Council members approved the food pantry donations three years ago, they struggled with it after then-Mayor Lynn McGill asked Council for a $1,000-a-month donation.

"Since the money was coming from a First Energy grant we had received, we justified it because it wasn't taxpayer money," Kudley said. "And we said once that money was gone, that was it. It was a one-time thing. Now, that money is gone, and we're in a position to request additional money."

Councilwoman Amy McDougald, who proposed the food pantry legislation that Council approved, started out with a disclaimer.

"Generally, I do not believe it is the role of local government to give taxpayer dollars to support non-profit [organizations]," she said.

"HOWEVER, in the case of the food pantry, that precedent was set several years ago. It has received $12,000 a year, money that would help feed those in need in every ward. If we discontinue these funds, there are those who certainly would go hungry."

Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin also supported the city's $1,000-a-month payments to the food pantry.

"Aurora has a hunger problem, and the VOA is addressing it," Womer Benjamin said. "If the VOA did not, the city could have other issues that stem from hunger which the city might have to address on its own. It is reasonable and appropriate to support the VOA by providing funding to the food pantry."

Womer Benjamin asked Law Director Dean DePiero to investigate whether the donations from the city are legal, and he said yes.

Kudley admitted it's an emotional question. "Should the city be spending public tax dollars to support a private charity? If you open the floodgates, what's to prevent another charity from asking for money?"

Kudley said for him, the emotional part of the debate involves his wife Barb and the American Cancer Society. Since 1998, Barb Kudley has had and recovered from colon and breast cancer, and also had thyroid issues, having her thyroid destroyed with radiation.

"You talk about an emotional issue," Kudley said. "Why aren't we supporting the American Cancer Society?"

Womer Benjamin said she believes the answer is that the food pantry "is different from other charities because it addresses a critical basic need of our citizens."

Council heard from a handful of residents who gave personal testimonials about the need for the food pantry.

One woman told city leaders, "The pantry has become a vital part of the Aurora community for over 30 years. Maintaining enough food has always been a problem, and it is even greater today.

"When I started volunteering at the pantry four years ago, we were filling three to four orders for families a week. Recently, we're providing 12 to 14 orders a week for local families. This community program is really neighbors helping neighbors. With [Council's] continued support, we can provide that relief for many of our citizens in need."

ANOTHER woman described how hardship had forced four generations of family members into her home, and how donations from the food pantry were tremendously helpful.

Council members agreed.

"Let's not even think about stopping this money [to the food pantry]," Councilman Harold Hatridge said.

McDougald challenged the city "to step up and help this organization as their yearly demand for food has doubled. As other organizations become aware of this need, the food pantry will become less dependent on city funds."

That is what Kudley is hoping for. So two of his stipulations were attached to the legislation that Council OK'd. VOA food pantry leaders must try to obtain private, county, state and federal grants, and they have to seek partial funding through Aurora's One Fund, which involves donations from all Aurora citizens who can request that their money go to the food pantry.

"It would be terribly cruel [to stop the donations to the food pantry]," Kudley said. "But at the same time, the government official in me is saying, 'This can't go on forever.' It's a community issue. It's the community that should solve the problem, not government."

Kudley's suggestions, if attainable, provide a reasonable solution. No one wants to see people go hungry, yet reaching that goal without using taxpayer dollars would be preferable.

Email: mlesko@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4187

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Twitter: Mike Lesko@MikeLesko_RPC

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