Facing an uncertain economy, towns are tightening their belts this year, and often the first budget lines on the chopping block are donations to social-service organizations and nonprofits, with some towns dropping the requests from their budget altogether in favor of a voluntary donation approach.

While some social-service organizations are reporting returns consistent with past years, others are seeing yet another year of lower receipts from towns, which often cut social-service donations in an effort to keep taxes low and limit government spending to essential services.

Ironically for the social-services organizations, the same factors that make residents unable to contribute are causing an increase in the need for services.

“The sad thing is that all of our services are free,” said Kathleen Morgan, executive director of New Hope for Women. “So, when times get hard, we see an increase in requests for services, and to see that go along with a decrease in funding [is difficult].”

New Hope operates services for abused women in Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties. The roughly $40,000 the organization gets in contributions from municipalities makes up around one percent of the organization’s annual operating budget, according to Morgan.

From 2006 to 2009, New Hope saw its total funding from municipalities drop from $42,725 to $35,026, and Morgan said the preliminary figures from Waldo County suggested that the organization would take in less money this year.

“Most of us recognize the dilemma the towns are in.” she said. “It’s hard to criticize them. They’re in a difficult position, too.”

Michael Sirota of the Pine Tree Chapter of American Red Cross said the seven-county nonprofit organization had seen, “no real reduction in support” from the municipalities that have resolved their 2010 budgets to date. However, Sirota said very few had increased their contributions from last year.

“In almost all cases, level funding from the prior year is the rule,” he said.

Sirota, who had attended 27 town meetings as of April 2, said some residents or town officials invariably rejected the idea of appropriating tax money for social services, but the requests typically go through.

“I don’t hear antagonism with the validity of services provided. I don’t hear a desire, a vote, not to continue support at the town level,” he said. “It always gets a lot of discussion, but when it comes to a vote, they decide to continue support.”

Joyce Scott, executive director of Waldo Community Action Partners, speculated that the scrutiny given to donations had to do with the size of the requests, which are often small in comparison with items like the school budget. Scott noted that the larger items were often approved with little discussion.

“I’ve seen them spend two hours on polishing gravestones. … It’s because they put their angst and their energy where they think they have some power, and then the big issues, they don’t feel they have power, so they don’t talk about it.”

Often the amount of work required of social-service organizations applying for town funding is large in comparison with the amounts they are requesting, and application procedures vary widely from one municipality to the next.

Sirota gave the example of one town in which the selectmen requested his presence at four separate town meetings. Other towns don’t require a representative to be present. Many require the requesting organization to collect signatures from registered voters on a petition in order to appear on the warrant.

“We respect that,” said Sirota. “We respect the process in every city and every town. Whatever they say is the process, that’s the process we follow.”

But small staffs at many organizations mean attending a meeting is not always an option. By not attending, an organization runs the risk of losing its funding. There are often several steps in the process, and requests may be disqualified before they reach voters. Other times, they are simply lost in transit.

“Every year this happens to us,” said New Hope Director Kathleen Morgan. “There are eight or 10 towns that call up and say, ‘We didn’t get a request. Are you going to send one in?’ I don’t know if they get lost in the mail, but they do [get lost].”

In Prospect this year the town selectmen noted that three regular recipients of donations from the town neglected to ask for any money this year. A recommended contribution of $1 appeared on the town warrant as a placeholder, but residents ultimately voted not to fund any of the three.

Morgan said New Hope had sent its usual request to Prospect, but wasn’t aware that it had not been included on the town warrant until it was too late.

WCAP might have benefited from the presence of a placeholder amount on the Unity town meeting warrant this year. In their recommendations to the budget committee, the town selectmen eliminated all but two of the many organizations that had requested money that year. The budget committee added several other requests to the warrant, but a $10,790 request from WCAP was not among them.

WCAP Transportation Director Edward Murphy appeared to be in a state of disbelief as he addressed residents at the town meeting, several of whom asked if WCAP would withdraw services from Unity. “We won’t stop services,” he said, “but you can bet that it will put a crunch on us.”

Unity Selectman James Kenney said WCAP was not singled out, but he noted that the organization’s request was the largest received by the town that year. It was also the second-largest WCAP request of the 17 towns that held town meetings by March 27. The third-largest had been in Swanville, where voters chose not to fund any social services this year.

In describing the Unity selectmen’s decision to limit their recommendation for funding to two organizations — a food pantry and a local library — Kenney expressed a sentiment that has been voiced in any number of other towns, where residents say they feel overwhelmed by the number of requests.

“Every one was taken out, because the numbers keep growing and growing and growing,” he said.

Three years ago, the town of Hope decided not to appropriate any money for social services at the town meeting, opting instead to include a checklist with residents’ tax bills on which they could choose which organizations to support and how much to give.

Deputy Clerk and Bookkeeper Mary Cooke, who said she thought up the idea after hearing rumors that surrounding towns were considering eliminating social services from their budgets, said appropriations for social services in Hope had dropped precipitously in the year before the town switched to the tax bill insert. In 2006, the town approved $4,654 worth of requests. The following year, the total amount given to social services was $1,602.

Beginning in 2008, the town included a checklist with residents’ tax bills, listing 10 nonprofit organizations that had requested money from the town, with checkboxes for $1, $2, $3 and a space for a different amount.

“We thought that might encourage people to give small amounts and that it would add up,” said Cooke. By the end of the year, the town had collected $2,312 on behalf of the 10 social-service organizations, a 44-percent increase from the previous year. Last year, that figure dropped to $1,965.

“If we could figure out a way to get to the people who pay by escrow, I think we’d do better,” Cooke said.

On the plus side, she said the new system might prove easier for the requesting organizations, which would be spared the trouble of appearing at budget committee meetings or the annual town meeting.

In Rockport, where selectman adopted a similar policy last spring, the results, from the point of view of the requesting organizations, have not been so positive.

According to town Executive Secretary and General Assistance Administrator Stacy Parra, in fiscal year 2006-07 — the last year in which townspeople voted on appropriations for social services — the town gave a total of $22,361. During the next two years, the town did not collect any money for social services.

The town selectmen voted last spring to include requests from “provider organizations” as an insert with residents’ tax bills, as was being done in neighboring Hope. At the end of 2009, the town had received a total of $857.91 — and from Jan. 1 through the end of March this year, an additional $50.

The Select Board recently renewed the voluntary donations policy for another year.

“We used to get a considerable amount of money from Rockport — a couple thousand [dollars] — and we get very little now, and the application process is very time-consuming,” said New Hope’s  Morgan.

Michael Sirota of the Red Cross said six of the 304 municipalities in the Pine Tree Chapter’s service area had switched to voluntary donations. At nearly every town meeting, he said someone asserted that the decision to give to social services should be made by individuals, not the town. Adopting a voluntary donation program meant following that argument to its logical conclusion, he said.

Thorndike Selectman James Bennett said he was in favor of dropping social services from the town budget.

“If you want to donate to the Red Cross, take out your checkbook and make a donation. … I feel that I [as a town official] have no right to add money to a person’s tax bill, then turn around and send it to the Red Cross.”

This year, WCAP asked the town of Thorndike for $7,442, of which residents approved a $1,500 donation. In past years, when Thorndike has given a similar portion of the request, Bennett recalled that representatives of WCAP have said they were happy with the reduced amount.

“Well, if they’re happy with $1,500, what are they asking us for $7,442 for?” he said. “It doesn’t add up.”

“What are you going to say?” said Debra Silva of Spectrum Generations, a nonprofit organization that operates senior-citizen centers in six counties.

“I’m sure every nonprofit has a formula or a way to justify that request. Maybe the towns aren’t going to give that [amount], but we appreciate whatever they do give.”

The formula used by Spectrum Generations has to do with the number of residents over 60 years of age in the town. During her 14 years with the organization, Silva said, the dollar amounts have not increased. In the past, when towns had given Spectrum Generations a portion of the request, Silva said the organization often would reduce its request in the subsequent year, to match the history of what the town had donated.

WCAP follows a strict formula in its requests, asking for two percent of the value of services the organization provided in that town during the previous year. Belfast Area Child Care Services requests $500 from every municipality — a figure that Director Barbara Kennedy said is less than 10 percent of the cost for a child to attend one of the service’s two daycare centers.

New Hope Director Morgan said she did not know the rationale behind the amounts that New Hope requested of towns, though she did not recall the amounts’ having changed in four to five years.

Among the towns there are formulas and rationales, too. At the extremes are the few that fully fund all requests, and those that fund none.

Faced with a list of requests of several hundred dollars each from seven organizations that had petitioned to appear on the warrant, residents of Troy voted to give $250 to each. A separate article was given to the $7,665 request from WCAP, because, as Town Clerk Sharon Moody said, “They help so much and in so many ways … that we fund it all the way.”

In Belmont, the town officials recommended, and voters approved, granting 50 percent of each request.

In many towns greater consideration is given to groups based in the town. Likewise, requests from organizations deemed to be casting too wide a net are regularly tossed out.

Representatives of every social-service organization interviewed for this article, without exception, expressed gratitude for the contributions that townspeople gave every year, but there was also a palpable frustration.

“We really do appreciate the support we get from the municipalities,” said Morgan. “I think what’s hard for nonprofits to see is when there are Fourth of July fireworks when the organizations for needy people aren’t being funded.”