Hunters Helping the Hungry is a fine program that does good work. There should be no misunderstanding about that.
But should a publicly owned utility be giving it money? Are those dollars public funds? Should they be donated to any charity? Why this group and not another charitable cause?
Some of these questions are being asked by Jim Begley, a newly elected member of the Metropolitan Utilities District board.
They’re darn good questions. This appears to be a fuzzy area of law and policy that needs to be clarified.
“Hunters Helping the Hungry is a wonderful program. I hope people don’t think I’m going after them,” Begley emphasized in an interview.
Indeed, that laudable, donation-funded program provides ground venison to needy Nebraskans. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission accepts cash donations for the program and uses the money to pay for processing and packaging of venison donated by deer hunters. The food is then distributed by charitable organizations.
What caught Begley’s attention was the fact that MUD made this donation while being prohibited by state law from making direct charitable donations, even to its own Heat Aid Fund, which helps those who can’t afford to pay their utility bills.
“Why are we donating to Hunters Helping the Hungry when we can’t even donate to the Heat Aid Fund, which is in line with our mission?” Begley asks.
MUD officials say that the money donated to the food program last fall was different because it came out of a contract between MUD and Northern Natural Gas, a private gas pipeline operator. About $580,000 of the nearly $1 million MUD spent on marketing-related expenses last year came from Northern Natural Gas.
Ron Bucher, MUD senior vice president and general counsel, told World-Herald staff writer Erin Golden that the contract between MUD and Northern doesn’t include specifics about how the money should be spent. Both generally have agreed that the money should be used to promote MUD’s operations and show that the district is invested in the community.
Some of Begley’s fellow MUD board members see no issue with the donation, saying the spending helps promote the utility. Some state officials who analyze public spending said they didn’t have a clear-cut opinion on whether the donation was appropriate. Officials from both the Omaha Public Power District and the Nebraska Public Power District said those utilities do not make any direct charitable donations.
This is a gray area, certainly, and one that needs clarification.
As Begley rightly argues, it would seem that regardless of technicalities, any money controlled by MUD, a public utility, should be considered public funds. Spending of those funds should occur with complete transparency and oversight, allowing the public to know what the public agency is doing.
In addition, regardless of how worthy any charity might be, choosing one good cause over another is a slippery slope for such public entities to be walking. What are the criteria for making such a choice? What factors are weighed to decide which charity gets money and which won’t?
“There are numerous wonderful charities in Omaha that would love to have a donation from MUD,” Begley notes.
The MUD board would be wise to review this situation and consider enacting specific guidelines for how these funds are spent. State lawmakers, too, should determine whether the current statutes are sufficiently clear on this point.