The snag in the $844,000 federal grant won by Highland County for crime prevention and community revitalization at the Rocky Fork Lake area has left both local and federal elected officials at a loss to explain the holdup.
The award from the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program, part of the U.S. Justice Department, was announced in October 2016. But in the spring of 2017, the county was notified by grant officials that problems with the grant had been identified, including concerns about a land bank being part of the implementation plan.
The land bank is a new entity created to handle part of the grant funds that would be used for the rehabilitation of blighted properties at the lake.
County officials were mystified by that complaint, since the land bank was identified in grant proposals without questions or concerns being raised. Shane Wilkin, president of the Highland County Board of Commissioners, told The Times-Gazette in late January that for months, each time the county would inquire about the status of the grant, a federal official would respond, “It’s still with legal.”
“I finally told them, ‘If this were my attorney I’d fire them,’” said Wilkin.
Wilkin said he has offered “to fly out (to Washington) for a face to face.” He said he wants to ask, “What happened here? Why did this happen?”
Indeed, answers are hard to come by. Beginning Monday morning, The Times-Gazette contacted the Justice Department grant office in Washington inquiring about the matter. Later that day, Joan LaRocca, a public affairs specialist with the Office of Justice Programs, emailed the newspaper and asked that specific questions be sent via email. The newspaper complied with that request, but no further responses were received.
The Times-Gazette’s questions were in regard to the status of the grant, the reason for the holdup, and the likelihood of the grant being provided considering it is scheduled to “term out” this October.
On Tuesday, the newspaper again contacted the Office of Justice Programs via email, with no response. Another email inquiry was sent Wednesday morning. This time, LaRocca replied and wrote, “I shared your questions with the Bureau of Justice Assistance and they are actively working (on) it.”
The commissioners have asked federal officeholders for assistance in getting answers about the grant holdup, but government ethics rules often prevent such help from being as effective as the public might assume. Congressional offices are not permitted to appear to be pressuring agencies in regard to grants, and can do little more than make generic inquiries. They often have to settle for vague replies or non-answers to their questions.
The office of Congressman Brad Wenstrup (R-2nd Dist.) has tried multiple times to help county commissioners get answers about the grant holdup.
Wenstrup said in a statement emailed Wednesday to The Times-Gazette, “I have been trying to assist the commissioners in getting straight answers from the DOJ, to no avail. I am committed to continuing to assist the county in getting the answers they need to move forward with this grant.”
Emily Benavides, deputy communications director for U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), said in an email response, “Rob was happy to help secure the grant money in 2016 and shares the frustration of the Highland County Commissioners that these funds have been delayed. We have reached out to the Department of Justice on multiple occasions to attempt to expedite the resolution of any outstanding issues, and Rob remains hopeful that these important grant funds can still be released and put to use benefiting the people of Highland County.”
Based on interviews with people familiar with the grant process, an initial set of concerns from the Bureau of Justice Assistance over local contacts and agents seemed to have been successfully addressed. But bureau officials seemed to be “moving the goalposts,” as more than one official said. For instance, grant officials began questioning the use of the land bank as part of the implementation of the grant.
The project started locally as the Rocky Fork Lake Area Safety and Advancement Planning Process (RFL-ASAP). Beginning with a series of meetings starting in December 2014, the sessions involved as many as 90 county officials, business owners and others.
While the county commissioners were the official grant applicants, LuAnn Winkle, director of the Turning Point Applied Learning Center, was the driving force behind applying for and winning the grant, which was one of just a handful of similar grants awarded across the United States.
In a statement prior to the initial 2014 meeting, Winkle said, “It is no secret in our community that while Rocky Fork Lake is a beautiful asset for our entire region, some of the communities around the lake have been plagued with high crime and poverty. It is our sincere hope to develop and implement a plan to not only reduce ‘hot spot’ crime and increase public safety, but also to spur economic development for all of Highland County by capitalizing on the potential of the lake area.”
The grant award announced in October 2016 was considered a major victory for Highland County, and particularly the lake area. Residents and business owners expressed optimism that, after several attempts over the years to address issues that plagued the lake, something concrete was finally happening.
As part of the grant, Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera planned to station a deputy full-time at the lake, working out of office space donated by the Rockhold, Brown and Company Bank branch located on North Shore Drive. A ceremony was held in February 2017 at the bank for the sheriff’s office to take possession of the office space, as well as receive a donated cruiser from Fayette County for the lake patrol.
After the grant hit a roadblock, Barrera said in January that he was still keeping a deputy on patrol at the lake as often as possible, but “we just don’t have the 40 hours a week” for a full-time deputy to be stationed there as originally planned.
The $844,000 grant came on the heels of a $100,000 grant that was won in 2014 from the same federal agency to start the process and develop a plan in hopes of winning the bigger grant.
The grant award document is still viewable on the Bureau of Justice Assistance website, and states that its status remains “open.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or follow on Twitter @AbernathyGary.