Citing a continuing impasse with the Department of Justice, Highland County commissioners have decided to end their efforts at pursuing an embattled economic development grant for the Rocky Fork Lake area, with Commissioner Jeff Duncan saying “it all boils down to agreeing to disagree.”
At stake was $844,000 from the DOJ’s Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program, now known as the Community Based Crime Reduction Program, that was earmarked for crime fighting and prevention, residential property blight removal and economic development in the Rocky Fork Lake region.
Commissioners voted unanimously at their weekly meeting Wednesday to end efforts at salvaging the grant, placing the blame on an inflexible federal bureaucracy and government red tape.
“The initial grant was for $100,000 for an initial two-year study that began in 2014,” Commissioner Gary Abernathy said. “That was put in place to try to win the bigger grant… we later won the big grant in 2016.”
Two years ago, according to a news release, the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance announced the awarding of $843,498 for the two-year Rocky Fork Lake Area Safety and Advancement project, with an implementation period of September 2016 to September 2018.
However, the BJA almost immediately began to identify problems with the project proposal, primarily questioning the creation of a land bank, and the fact that the project leader/fiscal agent, Turning Point Applied Learning Center, was not an employee of the county.
Another concern from the DOJ was whether sufficient staffing was in place to administer and oversee the grant.
When these objections surfaced, the county commissioners immediately froze the expenditure of any further grant dollars out of concern that they may have to be returned to the DOJ.
“Frankly, the minute they said Turning Point couldn’t be in this is when this whole thing began to go south in a big way,” Abernathy said.
Abernathy said that the guidelines of the grant prohibit the funding of existing deputies, since the grant specifies that money be allotted for new hires only.
However, under the current Fraternal Order of Police contract with the sheriff’s office, he said, deputies have the right to bid on shifts, with no guarantee that a deputy at the lake would be a newly hired deputy.
He said commissioners approached the FOP about getting a waiver of the contract concerning that provision, which it declined.
After a 12-month extension for the grant was awarded in September, commissioners requested a two-year extension, saying they could not address all the needs of the lake area in just one year.
“We’re now into the second month of the 12-month extension period,” Abernathy said. “Sheriff (Donnie) Barrera would need a month or maybe more to get a deputy trained and established there, and even if the FOP had approved that waiver, he and I both agree it would take too much time to identify, hire and train a deputy to work out there.”
Despite the difficulties the commissioners encountered in the Rocky Fork Lake grant, Abernathy said commissioners gained a lot of information from local organizations and individuals.
“Everything we learned about what’s needed will now help us to make this happen more effectively on the local level,” he said. “We can do it on our own without the never-ending roadblocks of the federal government.”
Duncan said there are many “positives that came out of a negative situation,” pointing out that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has made improvements at the lake, there is now an increased presence of law enforcement, and the health department has done some cleanup work.
He also noted the construction of the new Rocky Fork medical center, plans for a new branch of the Highland County District Library in the area, and real estate developers expressing interest in building new housing projects “have come about, I believe, because of what we’ve done with this grant.”
“And though it was one thing the Department of Justice had a problem with, we’ve created a land bank that is ready to go, too,” he added.
Prior to entering executive session, commissioners reiterated their plans to employ Delinquent Tax and Assessment Collection funds to support the land bank.
As previously reported, commissioners were considering a vote to allocate up to 5 percent of the biannual DETAC funds to the land bank for unrestricted use at cleaning up blighted properties, not only in the lake region but throughout Highland County.
“Some of the things the feds said we couldn’t do in the grant we can do on our own,” Duncan said. “Concerning sustainability, we feel like we can do it maybe not on the scale that the grant would’ve let us, but on a lesser level, and continue to do the things we set out to do.”
Commissioner Terry Britton echoed his fellow commissioners’ sentiments, saying that the grant began with promise for the area but the process quickly deteriorated “to the point where we just can’t go on.”
With commissioners deciding to terminate the Rocky Fork grant, Britton said some of the money used in its initial stages may have to be reimbursed to the DOJ and there will be a protracted “close-out procedure” to formally withdraw Highland County from the grant.
He also complimented the Rocky Fork Lake Community Alliance for its assistance and guidance on the aborted grant, and reaffirmed the commissioners’ commitment to the safety and growth of the region.
“I just want to tell them that we are not done,” Britton said. “We will be working through this for, as far as I’m concerned, many more years to come, but as far as this grant is concerned and with all we’ve been through these last two months, it’s pretty obvious it’s time to cut the cord so we can start actually doing something.”
Also during the meeting, commissioners met with Barrera during executive session, with the sheriff assuring commissioners that in the wake of the grant’s demise, he will see to it that a deputy will be stationed at Rocky Fork Lake as often as possible.
Barrerra was on hand primarily to speak with commissioners regarding installing new body scanners in the jail.
Mike Colvin of Aramark Food, Facility and Uniform Services submitted proposals for varying contract lengths to commissioners, with the intention of “enhancing protection of both Aramark and county employees” against smuggled contraband in the jail.
Steve Witham of the Highland County Board of Elections briefed commissioners on needed equipment upgrades, submitting proposals for three different voting machine systems.
Witham said that though Ohio requires the upgrades be in place before the 2020 general election, he would like to see Highland County’s in place before next year’s primary election to verify the system chosen is functioning properly.
Commissioners also met with John Hemmings of the Ohio Valley Regional Development Commission for an update on personnel in the organization and to report on progress made in the Appalachian region, including a pair of proposed solar projects proposed for the southern part of the county.
In other matters, commissioners approved 10 line item spending transfers within the county budget and signed off on a pair of contracts.
One of the contracts authorized a right-of-way change for Pike Natural Gas Company, extending an easement along the property line of the Highland County Fairground.
Following a moment of silence in honor of the late former president George H.W. Bush, commissioners honored the services of two Highland County icons.
Calling her the “go-to person if you want to know Highland County history,” Duncan saluted Jean Wallis for her work with the Highland County Historical Society.
A reception will be held for her at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9 at the Highland House Museum.
He also commended longtime local broadcaster Williard Parr for his more than six-decades of keeping the area informed and entertained on WSRW radio.
A public reception will be held for Parr at Southside Praise & Worship Center, 621 S. East St., in Hillsboro on Thursday, Dec. 6. from 5-7 p.m.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.