By unanimous vote Nov. 17, the Sarasota County Tourist Development Council approved changes in its grants policy guidelines, part of which were designed to eliminate any confusion over eligibility of applicants for funding.
Those changes will come before the Sarasota County Commission for final approval.
The changes, Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance, presented to the TDC included several opportunities for organizations to correct any deficiencies in their applications before grant decisions were recommended to the County Commission.
“We wanted to make sure that everybody feels that they’re getting an even shot, by guidelines, and there are no discrepancies there,” he said.
“The big issue that has come to all our attention is the tax returns,” County Commission Chairwoman Nora Patterson, who also chairs the TDC, told Shirley. “Are your dates reasonable?”
“We think they are,” Shirley said. “There should not be any issues with the tax return under normal circumstances.”
All applications are due by 5 p.m. Feb. 24.
When Patterson then asked whether that date allowed organizations ample time to get their tax returns, Shirley told her that most nonprofit organizations have fiscal years that end either in July or September.
“I am not aware of any that are on a year-end situation,” Shirley said.
Shirley also said an organization must have been registered as a Florida nonprofit for a full year before submitting an application. However, he said, it does not have to have 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service for a full year before applying.
“There has been confusion about this point,” he told the council.
Shirley said the registration guideline had been in effect for a number of years. When the Chalk Festival applied for a grant this year, the Arts and Cultural Alliance had to deny the application, because the festival had not been registered as a Florida nonprofit for a full year at the time.
After his staff reviews the submitted applications, Shirley told the TDC, he and the Grants Policy Committee chairman will review the list of ineligible applicants and convene the committee to ensure that the guidelines have been applied properly in regard to any applications that had been rejected for inadequacy.
“We want to do everything possible to make sure things are done transparently,” Shirley said.
In March, Shirley continued, “To avoid any possible conflict of interest, we’ll make sure that we review (every application) completely a second time prior to notifying a group its application is not acceptable.”
Any organization that does not receive a recommendation for a grant will have one further opportunity to gain funding, Shirley said. The deadline for requesting reconsideration will be May 16. The only criteria for a Reconsideration Committee to judge the validity of those requests, he said, will be if the Grants Policy Committee did not adhere to guidelines, Arts and Cultural Alliance Staff or the committee made a data error or a conflict-of-interest situation had occurred.
Shirley also pointed out a change in the guidelines that says an exception in the grants application process will be made for public/private direct support organizations, which have to provide an accounting of arts-related expenses from their general operating budgets.
“We added this to clarify procedures for organizations such as the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the Ringling Museum,” he said. “These folks are not 501(c)(3)s (but deserve equal opportunity to apply for funding).”
Asked how the Arts and Cultural Alliance made smaller organizations aware of the opportunity to apply for grants, Shirley said the Alliance publishes ads throughout the county and puts the appropriate information on its website.
“We do everything feasible, possible, to get that word out,” he said. “And it very well may be that some of these smaller organizations may not be able to qualify.”
Arts grants apportioned by their size
Any organization applying for a county grant for arts and cultural programming is put into one of four categories, based on its annual operating expenses as reported in its yearly financial statement for its most recently completed fiscal year:
• less than $100,000
• $100,000 to $349,000
• $350,000 to $1,999,999
• $2 million and higher
The following funding caps are applied to those categories, respectively: