ALFRED — Joan Sylvester spent a good chunk of last week writing letters – 29 letters, to be exact.
Each went to a different town in York County. Each was a request for money.

And behind each request lurked a fundamental question: In these troubled times, who is responsible for helping to feed the hungry?

“I’m biased,” said Sylvester, volunteer coordinator and director of community relations for York County Shelter Programs, Inc. “I see the people we serve.”

And she sees more by the day.

Three years ago, the multi-pronged social service agency handed out, with no questions asked, 12,828 food boxes from its food pantry on Shaker Hill Road – enough frozen meat, bread, fresh produce and other foodstuffs for 39,151 hungry mouths.

By the fiscal year that ended in June, those numbers had spiked 31 percent to 16,878 boxes, or 50,633 mouths.

“And this year, I’m sure the number of boxes will be well over 17,000,” predicted Sylvester.

Which brings us back to those letters.

Their collective intent: To fill a fiscal hole that appeared earlier this year when York County’s commissioners, for the first time in decades, voted unanimously to stop writing checks to the food pantry and five other social service agencies that serve the county.

And here’s the kicker – the money for the agencies is sitting in the county’s budget. The commissioners simply refuse to spend it.

“We said from day one that this was never a critique of the value or the services provided by these entities,” said Commissioner David Bowles during an interview in the county office Friday. “We think people should fund all of these entities – but we think it should be done through other revenue sources.”

It all started last fall when the county’s five commissioners voted to stop funding the six so-called “outside agencies” at the end of their respective 2010-2011 fiscal years.

That translated into just under $100,000 annually in reduced county spending – $31,868 of which would have gone to the York County Shelter food pantry.

Under York County’s budgeting process, however, final say over the commissioners’ budget rests with a 15-member Budget Committee made up largely of municipal officials from the county’s five districts.

The budget committee has the power to alter the spending plan – which it subsequently did by reinstating all of the social service funds.

“The Budget Committee felt the agencies had been funded by the county for many, many years,” explained Chairman John Sylvester, a selectman from Alfred who also happens to be Joan Sylvester’s husband. Maintaining that support, he added, “was important to the social safety net in York County.”

Maybe so.  But the commissioners, upon receiving the amended budget – for which the revenues, most of which come from municipal tax assessment, had already been allocated – dug in their heels. Rather than spend the reinstated money, they’ve been sitting on it ever since.

In other words, one arm of government unanimously feels the county should support, say, the food pantry. And the other arm – the one with check-writing authority – unanimously feels the opposite.

Can we say “philosophical standoff?”

“It’s not a standoff at all,” replied Bowles. “The commissioners have the final policy decision and we made our decision.”

Despite the fact that they’ve decided otherwise for as long as anyone can remember?

“We have,” conceded Bowles. “But that doesn’t make it right.”

Bowles insists that the commissioners’ responsibility to provide legally mandated “core services” – the county jail, the sheriff’s office, the registry of deeds, to name a few – trumps the outside agencies at a time when the public sector is getting squeezed at all levels.

Still, there’s more at work here than a simple budget crunch.

“There are agencies that I contribute to personally … that’s my decision,” said Bowles, a former Republican state representative from Sanford.

But when the county funds such agencies, he continued, “we’re taking the decision away from the taxpayers, away from the individual.

“We’re saying, ‘Government knows best how to spend your donations. We’re going to confiscate your money – because that’s what it is – through taxation in order to provide money to those agencies that we, and only we, have decided are worthy.’ ”

In short, the way Bowles sees it, keeping the boxes of food flowing from the food pantry may be a problem throughout York County, but that shouldn’t make it York County’s problem.

It’s enough to make Joan Sylvester wonder if they all live in the same county. She said she was “crushed” when the commissioners held firm and refused to free up the money.

“These are our people,” she said. “Right here. In York County.”

Joan Hanscom, 76, has volunteered at the food pantry for the last 11 years. As recipients, some with children in tow, paraded in from the rain early Friday afternoon, Hanscom said she’s never been busier.

“A few days ago we had 80 in one hour,” she said. “Some come in and say, ‘I’ve never been here – I’m so embarrassed.’ And we say, ‘No. That’s what we’re here for.’ ”

There’s the grandmother from a rural town who just had her grandchildren left with her and had no way to feed them. She left with a few extra jars of peanut butter.

There’s the woman who just got laid off and lives for now in an unheated summer camp with three stray kittens – they cuddle together at night to stay warm. She almost cried when she heard the pantry had cat food.

There’s the man who showed up with bittersweet tears in his eyes because the job he just landed doesn’t pay for another two weeks. And, until then, he had no way to put food on his family’s table.

And through it all, there’s money now sitting in the county’s coffers that could help ease the sting of these hard-and-getting-harder economic times. Instead, it likely will be rolled into the county’s reserve fund at year’s end.

It’s too soon to tell whether Joan Sylvester’s letters to each town in the county will help bridge the $31,868 gap in the food pantry’s budget. Many York County communities already provide direct support and now will be asked to help out even more.

But the question remains – not only in York County, but in every town, city, county and state where the more the revenues go down, the more the need seems to go up:
Whose problem is that?

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:
[email protected]