Sunday, February 3, 2019

Many Oshkosh residents go beyond the call of taxes, donate millions of dollars to support city operations

Photo by Miles Maguire
Private donations keep the city's Menominee Park Zoo free of admission charges for visitors.
By Miles Maguire
For all those Oshkosh residents who like to complain about local taxes and fees, it may come as a surprise that quite a few people are willingly sending money to City Hall.

Over a three-year period from 2015 to 2017, the city received almost $2 million in gifts, according to recent reports presented to the Common Council. Cash gifts were the greatest in 2015, at $701,248, falling to $537,987 in 2016 and then bouncing back up to $599,238 in 2017.

The number of cash gifts ranged from a low of about 250 in 2015 to a high of about 360 in 2016. These figures do not include the number of small donations, less than $100, which are typically lumped together, or of in-kind gifts.

The largest single gift was $65,000 from the Oshkosh Area Community Foundation for the Menominee Park Zoo, a sum that was given on three different occasions. This is the amount that has been pledged on an annual basis by a local couple, Tom and Penny Harenburg, who set up a special fund at the foundation to provide free admission to the zoo.

Many of the gifts are intended to support quality of life activities in the city, such as city parks, the Oshkosh Public Museum, the Oshkosh Public Library, the old Lakeshore Municipal Golf Course and the Pollock Community Water Park.

CIty Manager Mark Rohloff said gifts often result from someone’s personal sense of passion about a particular subject. “People recognize that there are certain programs or initiatives that won’t necessarily gain widespread support for public financing with tax dollars” and decide to provide private funding, he explained.

The effect can be contagious. When citizens step up to donate for a particular activity, “they serve as a great example and effectively become a catalyst for others,” Rohloff said.

The Oshkosh Police Department reported that it received $212,000 over the three-year period. A major chunk of that money, more than $70,000, was given to support the local canine unit. According to the OPD website, “all costs of the program (with the exception of personnel) are paid for through the generosity of individual citizens, groups and local business owners in our community.”

By contrast the Oshkosh Fire Department reported less than $15,000 in gifts.

Some gifts were given to provide for outdoor memorials. Two popular options were park benches, at $1,500, and trees, at $300.

The Oshkosh Seniors Center reported separately that it had received $61,300, almost 10 percent of its 2018 budget, from funds raised through an auxiliary group called the Friends of the Oshkosh Seniors Center.

Some of the reports given to the council identify the source of funds, but in most cases the names of the donors are not available. Finance Director Trena Larson told the council that the missing information is the result of the way that the city has tracked donations.

In previous years, the city “didn’t have the necessary forms to give you the detail” about the source of gifts. New forms have been adopted that allow city staff “to gather greater detail,” she said.

While certainly helpful the funds the city receives represent a small part of overall spending. The total Oshkosh budget for 2019 is $75.6 million,
with almost $40 million coming from property taxes.

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