More than 500 athletes took to the track at UNCW for the 2013 New Hanover County Special Olympics Spring Games.
WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – WECT received a letter in the mail recently that caused a little confusion. It was a solicitation for donations for the Special Olympics, but it came in a City of Wilmington envelope.
After some investigating, we found out the Special Olympics New Hanover County staff are employees of the City of Wilmington.
It's somewhat unusual for a city to put the staff of a private non-profit on the payroll. It's also quite unusual to use city stationery, stamps and staff to do fundraising efforts for a private organization.
Special Olympics New Hanover County is a well-loved charity that provides a valuable outlet to hundreds of residents in our area. But according to a city spokeswoman, it's also the only non-profit that's being entirely housed by the City of Wilmington.
City tax dollars are paying the staff's salary and benefits, and we're told it's been that way for decades.
"The city does support it through funding one full-time and a part-time position, and a small amount for program materials, office supplies, that sort of thing," explained Amy Beatty, the Superintendent of Recreation for the City of Wilmington.
The salary and benefits for these positions total $75,000. The employees coordinate a variety of recreational activities for special needs residents, but the majority of their job involves programming and fundraising for the Special Olympics.
"I think that Wilmington is following the model that the rest of North Carolina is," Beatty said.
Special Olympics does have partnerships with cities, counties and schools all over the state, but the president of Special Olympics North Carolina explained Wilmington is somewhat unique in the level of support it provides for Special Olympics. Wilmington is one of very few places to use public money to finance the fundraising efforts for this private charity.
This caught City Councilwoman Laura Padgett by surprise.
"I have a real issue and did not know it was going on, with the city using city stationery, city envelopes," said Padgett, who is ok with the City of Wilmington supporting programming for the Special Olympics, but not fundraising.
"I think that's entirely improper…I don't know if this is the first year it's happened, or whether it's been done in the past and we just weren't aware of it, but it puts the agency that we are requesting funding for at an unfair advantage over other programs," Padgett said.
Unlike Special Olympics, Padgett says most charities have to apply for support from the city each year, and may or may not get the funding they request. Padgett says she plans to ask city council and staff to reconsider the funding structure for Special Olympics.
We've already heard from one council member who does not share her opinion that it needs to change. Councilman Neil Anderson got quite defensive when we asked him about the city's funding for Special Olympics. He called our story a "tea party" type "gouge job."
Anderson said he doesn't look at this like funding a charity, but as a way to provide a service to some of our residents. He also said he had no problem with the city financing fundraising efforts for the Special Olympics, even direct mailings on city stationery.
You might be curious how other counties handle Special Olympics. Brunswick County has a somewhat similar set up to Wilmington's. A Parks and Recreation Department employee there manages the Special Olympics as one aspect of his job helping special populations. But the county is not involved in any fundraising.
In Columbus and Pender Counties, Special Olympics partners with the school system, but we are told the only public money being used is to provide transportation to Special Olympics events. In Bladen and Duplin Counties, Special Olympics is a community based charity.