AG opinion puts county aid to food center in limbo

County attorney reviewing options

An opinion by the state Attorney General is raising questions about Shawano County’s annual contribution to a local food distribution center, but the county’s legal counsel says there might be enough wiggle room in the opinion to allow continued donations.

Attorney General Brad Schimel on Friday issued a formal opinion to Shawano County Corporation Counsel Tony Kordus concerning whether a county board is legally authorized to appropriate money to a private nonprofit food pantry.

Schimel concluded that state statutes do not give county boards that authority.

“While county boards may establish and operate programs to serve the residents of the county who need assistance in securing adequate food, the statute does not grant authority to make appropriations to nonprofits to perform this task,” Schimel wrote.

The opinion does not apply to cities and villages, which are granted broader home rule under the state constitution. Town boards can exercise whatever powers are consistent with village decisions if they pass a resolution to that effect.

Kordus requested the opinion in November.

The Shawano Area Food Center, part of the national Feed America program, distributes food to 21 food pantries and other outlets in the area, including the Shawano Area Food Pantry and Resource Center.

Its biggest expenses are utility costs and propane, according to John Hill, who was instrumental in getting the operation going in the Shawano area.

Hill said Shawano County has contributed about $8,500 a year to the organization over the past six years for utility costs. The center is reimbursed for its actual bills and is never given more than it needs, he said.

The attorney general’s opinion was a serious concern, Hill said.

“If they take that away, I’ve got to go out and raise that from the public somewhere,” Hill said. “How am I going to do that?”

He said the alternatives could include shutting the distribution center down or assessing each food pantry for the food it receives.

“They can’t afford that,” Hill said.

Hill noted that the center already receives widespread volunteer support, not only from its workers, but also from firms willing to do electrical work and maintenance.
“The people of Shawano County have been very good to us,” he said.
Kordus said the county is reviewing the attorney general’s opinion.

“We’ll take a look at it,” he said.

He said the attorney general’s opinion was intended to apply to county boards statewide and doesn’t necessarily address the specifics of the Shawano County case.

“We don’t donate food,” Kordus said, and the money allocated is intended for a specific use.

“We assist with utilities,” he said, adding that such an expense could be an allowable form of donation if the county views the distribution center as serving the public interest.

Kordus said the county would review the question over the next week before deciding how to proceed.

Kordus said the finance committee would also compile a list of other nonprofit organizations that receive assistance.
That could include contributions to the Safe Haven Domestic Abuse Shelter.

Kordus said, the county is in “pretty good shape” where that’s concerned.
Schimel’s opinion notes exceptions to the rules allow for county contributions to assist victims of domestic violence and other crimes, as well as other organizations that provide services to the elderly and handicapped.
In short, statues allow for donations to any entity that promotes the health and welfare of the general public.

The problem, according to Schimel’s opinion, is that the statutes don’t specifically mention food pantries.