After months of little or no response from the U.S. Department of Justice over the holdup of an $844,000 grant award for crime prevention and community enhancement at Rocky Fork Lake, a relative flurry of activity came late Thursday and Friday with responses provided to The Times-Gazette, and Justice officials agreeing to meet with Commissioner Shane Wilkin in Washington.
But considering the objections being raised and the changes and additional requirements upon which federal officials are insisting, local officials on Friday did not sound optimistic about keeping the grant.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs told The Times-Gazette Friday that the holdup of the grant is due to concerns that “key grants management responsibilities were being administered by a sub-recipient,” and “the grantee did not have adequate internal controls in place to ensure funds were to be expended in accordance with the terms and conditions of the award.”
The “sub-recipient” of the grant is the Turning Point Applied Learning Center. In fact, Turning Point’s longtime director, LuAnn Winkle, was the driving force behind winning the grant and was also set to be the site coordinator, although the grant was technically applied for by the Highland County Commissioners.
In their response to The Times-Gazette, Justice officials said that more than $61,000 set aside for salary and benefits for a law enforcement officer at the lake remains in force and permissible to use.
Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera reiterated Friday that he was told months ago by Winkle that those funds had been cut off, causing him to suspend plans to station the deputy full time at a lake office provided by a local bank, although he said lake patrol remains a high priority.
“That’s the first I’ve heard of that,” said Barrera in regard to the DOJ’s position on the funds remaining permissible for a deputy at the lake.
But Winkle said Friday she and the commissioners decided to suspend the expenditure of all grant funds out of fear that federal officials would ask for them to be returned, considering the other problems that were being identified with the grant.
“It would be unfair to ask the sheriff to go out on a limb,” said Winkle, when there was considerable uncertainty about the status of the grant, including the funds for policing the lake, which Winkle said had also been subject to revisions by federal officials.
“There were no guarantees” that the county could satisfy what local officials saw as evolving grant requirements that led to “so much confusion,” said Winkle, and could possibly require payback of grant dollars. Wilkin estimated Friday that the county has spent $60,000 to $80,000 of the grant award.
Winkle and Wilkin both said Friday that a major part of the problem with the grant has been constant changes in requirements, endless requests for more documentation, and, as other officials described it, “moving the goalposts” in ways that small counties like Highland cannot adjust due to small staffing. Barrera agreed Friday that he does not have the staff with the time to provide the statistics and data that his office was frequently asked to submit.
The grant was set up to be administered by Turning Point, where Winkle has served as director for several years. In fact, her position as the grant site coordinator was established through Turning Point.
Winkle said Friday that in January, because of the problems with the grant, the Turning Point board of directors decided to end the site coordinator position. Winkle said she has also effectively retired as director of Turning Point, although she is helping with transitional issues until April.
Justice officials have agreed to meet with Wilkin when the commissioner is in Washington D.C. later this month. Wilkin said he was notified Thursday evening by Congressman Brad Wenstrup’s office that bureau officials had agreed to the meeting. Wilkin is scheduled to be in Washington later in March with Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission meetings.
For several months, Wilkin had been frustrated in attempting to get answers, saying in late January that he had offered “to fly out (to Washington) for a face to face.” He said he wanted to ask, “What happened here? Why did this happen?” But until Thursday evening, officials had not agreed to his request or provided meaningful responses.
The agreement by Justice bureau officials to meet with Wilkin and the department’s answers to questions posed by the newspaper came on the heels of Times-Gazette articles this week detailing the difficulties that elected officials and the newspaper have experienced in getting answers from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which is the umbrella agency over the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program, which awarded the grant to Highland County in October 2016.
The Times-Gazette’s story on Thursday included expressions of frustration from Wenstrup (R-2nd Dist.) and U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) over the lack of responsiveness from the bureau.
Around 5:30 p.m. Friday, a public affairs specialist with the Office of Justice Programs, James Goodwin, provided an emailed response to questions posed by The Times-Gazette since Monday, stating, “Funds for this grant are currently being withheld.”
“In April 2017, a withholding of funds was placed on the grant as a result of the Bureau of Justice Assistance grant manager’s discovery that key grants management responsibilities were being administered by a sub-recipient,” according to the response to The Times-Gazette. “Issues that need to be resolved have been communicated in writing, including recommendations following an Aug. 29-30, 2017, site visit. The grantee did not have adequate internal controls in place to ensure funds were to be expended in accordance with the terms and conditions of the award. BJA notified Highland County of these issues and determinations in writing.”
The grant is scheduled to “term out” in October. Justice officials responded to a question on that topic by saying, “Release of the funds will be dependent on Highland County’s submission of the overdue progress report and satisfactory resolution of other identified issues. The sooner Highland County rectifies the identified issues, the sooner they could receive the funds.”
The federal officials said Highland County “can make a request to BJA for additional time to implement their project, once the site visit findings have been adequately resolved. It is important to note that BJA works with grantees to begin preparations to return grant funds not spent within 30 days of the end of the grant period.”
Justice officials added, “BJA is committed to working with grantees to identify and rectify compliance issues to ensure grantees receive and execute the awarded funds for the purpose intended.”
The Justice Department response to The Times-Gazette did not mention the land bank component of the project, which local officials said has also been identified as problematic by federal officials.
Winkle and Wilkin both reiterated Friday that the original grant proposals made clear Turning Point’s role in the grant. Winkle said federal agencies don’t understand small counties like Highland when they express concerns about a lack of “internal controls.” Winkle has won and administered numerous federal grants over the years in her role at Turning Point.
“I’ve never had any problems in the past,” said Winkle.
Winkle said the Justice Department does not help provide technical assistance or advice for smaller grant recipients.
Wilkin said Friday he was glad that Justice officials have agreed to meet with him when he travels to Washington later this month, and he hopes to get more clarity on what grant officials expect, and whether Highland County can comply with their demands.
For her part, Winkle said she is unhappy that she was unable to see the grant to fruition, having initially believed that the lake area was on the verge of receiving a substantial boost.
“I’m disappointed for the county, really,” she said.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.