The Highland County Commissioners on Wednesday announced they will ask for help from elected officials in getting a 24-month extension for an embattled federal economic development grant for the Rocky Fork Lake area.
As previously reported, the commissioners last week agreed to cautiously continue efforts to secure the $844,000 grant after they received word that the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program, the division of the Department of Justice that awarded the grant, had granted a 12-month extension for the grant.
But commissioners now say one year is not enough time to accomplish their goals for the lake area, and are requesting Highland County’s state and national representatives throw their weight behind a request for a two-year extension.
“We’re sending a letter to all of our elected representatives asking for their assistance and specifically asking them to write letters in support of the DOJ extending the extension to 24 months, instead of 12 months,” said Commissioner Gary Abernathy.
In a copy of the letter given to the Times-Gazette, which will be sent to U.S. senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown, U.S. Congressman Brad Wenstrup, State Representative Shane Wilkin and State Senator Bob Peterson, commissioners state, “the scope of this project contains initiatives that would be ineffective or unachievable in a 12-month time frame, especially since the clock began ticking Oct. 1.”
Nan Cahall, the Southwest District director for Portman’s office, was in attendance during Wednesday’s meeting, and told commissioners she will personally convey the letter to Washington, D.C.
The letter further asks that representatives contact the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the funding arm of the DOJ, “to request that this extension be made 24 months rather than 12 months. This extension would equal the original implementation period and provide us the time to utilize this grant in a more effective and impactful way.”
Abernathy said he and fellow commissioners Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton felt that the current 12-month extension, granted Sept. 27, was “too tight of a window” to make the grant work.
The grant was initially awarded in September 2016 for a two-year period, but stalled when the Department of Justice objected to several items in the proposal. Commissioners repeatedly attempted to remedy the objections with little success, and considered withdrawing from the grant as the expiration date of Sept. 30, 2018 drew near.
On Wednesday, Abernathy thanked members of the Rocky Fork Lake Community Alliance for attending last week’s commissioners meeting and acknowledged their concerns about the grant.
“We were planning on attending their Oct. 18 meeting out at the lake,” he said, “but we received an email this past week requesting we come out to their November meeting instead to talk about the grant.”
Abernathy said commissioners are looking forward to next month’s meeting, adding that the board of commissioners will have a number of decisions to make in the time leading up to the group’s November meeting that will allow input from the lake organization.
“Commissioner Abernathy said it right when he said ‘the clock is ticking,’” Duncan said. “We’ve still got a lot of really basic things to get done before we can get started.”
He said landing a 24-month extension will be a difficult task.
“I’ve been in contact with State Representative Shane Wilkin,” Duncan said, “and he’s been composing a letter, and senator Portman’s office and the others are doing the same, in writing a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions about the situation we’re in.”
Duncan said he hopes communication from the area’s elected officials will buy some time in getting final approval and implementation of the grant.
“The comment we got from them when we asked about it,” he said, “was ‘not likely,’ and it was something that would be done only in ‘outstanding circumstances.’”
Cahall expressed support from Portman’s office, telling the commissioners she would recommend the senator remain involved in efforts to obtain the extension.
“I know that the senator would be happy to be supportive of this,” she said. “I can’t imagine a reason why he wouldn’t, since he’s been a supporter since you got the grant, and through the process where we had been in communication with DOJ previously when problems began to arise.”
At the present time, though a 12-month extension is in place, the revised budget still has not been approved, and open issues from a past site visit still need to be addressed before any funds are released and the grant can go forward, commissioners said.
“We’re working as fast as we can,” Duncan said, “but it all takes time, as we’ve been finding out firsthand.”
The commissioners also approved routine contracts and financial resolutions.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571