The Highland County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday agreed to cautiously continue efforts to secure a more than $800,000 federal economic development grant for the Rocky Fork Lake area after nearly giving up last week.
As previously reported, the commissioners last week said they were going to let the application deadline for the grant expire, but received word the next day that the application deadline had been extended by the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program, the division of the Department of Justice that awarded the grant.
Commissioner Jeff Duncan told those at the commissioners’ weekly meeting, where several members of the Rocky Fork Community Alliance were present, that fellow commissioners Terry Britton and Gary Abernathy spoke with Department of Justice officials by phone Tuesday.
Abernathy said former Commissioner Shane Wilkin, now state representative of the 91st District, joined commissioners on the call.
“We wanted to pose some questions to them since we had some consultations with people who have had experience writing grants,” he said.
Abernathy said that from the beginning of the grant process, the DOJ has strictly maintained that only the commissioners office or county employees can be involved in administrating the grant.
The Rocky Fork Lake Area Safety and Advancement Project began with a proposal from the Turning Point Applied Learning Center, with its then-director LuAnn Winkle.
Abernathy stressed that the original grant proposal specifically stated that Winkle would be the site administrator and that Turning Point would manage the grant.
“Almost as soon as they approved it, they turned around and said Turning Point can’t have anything to do with it, and yesterday on the phone, it was the first time in Shane’s memory as well, they actually came out and admitted making that error,” Abernathy said.
Britton said that in the phone call the DOJ was advised that the commissioner’s office didn’t have the staff to manage the grant, and that different scenarios were mentioned to see if other individuals would be qualified and approved.
“We had a response today from our contact at the federal level, saying that they’re looking into the situation and they would get back with us,” Abernathy said. “We’re still posing more questions and waiting for answers to see if we can proceed with this grant.”
One thing that concerned Britton was that the clock on the extension began running Oct. 1.
“The big issue is when I asked them when the extension started they told me it began Monday,” he said. “No funds have been released, nothing else has been settled and the extension is already started, and it might be a month or two before anything gets worked out with these people.”
Britton said Wilkin spoke with him by phone Tuesday night and indicated he would be in contact with both Senator Rob Portman and Congressman Brad Wenstrup’s offices, both of whom have agreed to write letters to the DOJ asking them to lengthen the extension or grant a second one.
Another point of contention, Britton said, was the sheriff’s contract, because under its terms Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera won’t be able to assign three new deputies to the lake region which was specified in the grant.
“Under the new contract,” Abernathy said, “deputies can bid on shifts, so our question was, can they bid on the lake patrol or do three new deputies have to be hired, since the DOJ doesn’t want to fund existing deputies.”
The commissioners said they are committed to moving forward with a locally managed plan for economic development at Rocky Fork Lake in the event the grant funds fail to materialize.
Commissioner Jeff Duncan said the commissioners have been meeting in the past week with individuals around the county who have experience dealing with grants.
“They’ve been willing to come in and meet with us,” he said. “And we’ve been looking for some advice since they’ve said their experiences have been similar to what we’ve been dealing with.”
Duncan said the process has been aggravating.
“The frustrating part of all of this is we’re spending time and county money to achieve this goal,” he said, “and let’s call it a carrot on a stick because every time we think we’ve got it, they move it a little farther out.”
“The studies that were done for the lake should be put into action as much as we possibly can,” Abernathy said. “There was a lot of work and a lot of meetings, and needs that were identified that we want to put into place to see what we can do on our own. Even if the grant doesn’t happen, we are going to tackle the lake on our own to the greatest degree we possibly can.”
Another facet of the lake improvement, which was a major sticking point in the original proposal, was the establishment of a land bank to address the issue of blighted properties. Duncan said commissioners will meet with Clinton County officials for more information on the Clinton County land bank.
“One of our goals for 2019 is to have the land bank in place,” he said.
Britton stressed the need to ensure that funding for the elements of the grant will continue into the future.
“We don’t want to go into this thing and make it a 10-month or a one-year deal,” Britton said. “It has to be sustainable for the lake for years to come, and my hope is that this grant will lead into that.”
Britton went to on assure the members of the lake alliance that commissioners are not giving up on the grant, confirming that they will continue to work through the process of dealing with the federal government.
One of the lake alliance members, Becky Basford, a longtime Highland County resident and a federal grant writer who has offered her assistance, encouraged commissioners to stay the course.
“It is a very long process and they will keep throwing road blocks in front of you, but you have to press on,” she said. “I’ve spoken with others like yourselves who have pursued grants and they’ve gone through similar difficulties and obstacles, and they overcame them. You can’t give up because when you’re dealing with the feds, it’s a very difficult process, and you must be persistent and have patience.”
She went on to say that in her experience, it isn’t surprising to have to wait months or even a year when dealing with agencies like the Department of Justice.
Lori Morris is a board member of the Rocky Fork Community Alliance and expressed optimism about the grant.
“We hope that we’ll get it,” she told The Times-Gazette following the meeting. “There are a lot of moving parts involved, and we can’t give up until we feel that it’s all over.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.