County Council grapples with community grants

WINNSBORO – Community Enhancement Grants, which were terminated by County Council last year, came under fire again last week when they were revisited during a Council work session; not only from some Council members but from the County’s financial staff as well.

Comptroller Laura Johnson presented a ‘pros and cons’ report that described the previous application process approved by Council in 2015 as challenging for her staff.

According to Johnson, approved applicants were given $500 grants. After they spent the money they were to turn in their receipts  for the purchases.

“But when we asked for the receipts, that was very difficult. I had to call people five and six times. It was a lot of work.”

She said the next year Council required receipts to be turned in before the grant money was given out. Johnson said many applicants who were approved for grants either did not turn in their receipts or turned in ‘bogus’ receipts that did not match how the money was to be used, causing staff extra work and stress.

“I tried to do my best to call and leave messages,” Johnson told Council. “But we found ourselves having to justify why we could not reimburse them. Sometimes they became angry trying to justify why their receipts did not match the use on the application when it’s clear they didn’t match.”

While the County earmarked $2,500 per district ($17,500 total) last year for “the support of community based programs that develop or promote the improvement of quality of life activities for youth, adults and seniors,” the application process itself is on hold.

“The way we left it, is we would come back and try to fine tune it this year,” Councilwoman Mary Lynn Kinley (District 6) said.

Kinley, said she is in favor of reinstating the $500 grants to churches and other organizations to purchase school supplies or to provide assistance to individuals in the community who volunteer with the youth and the elderly.

Councilman Billy Smith (District 7) told Council, “I really think this (the grants program) is not something we should move forward on. I just found out about this meeting at noon yesterday and I appreciate the financial staff putting together this fact sheet (the pros and cons report). We need to base our decisions on sound factual information, not politics.” He went on to explain, “I think it is political and campaign based. If it weren’t, then why do we care which district the money goes to?”

Smith read a list of organizations to which he said the County government already provides almost $1 million or almost four percent of the general fund each year.

“It sounds like some bigotry going on here with the churches and stuff,” Councilman Kamau Marcharia (District 4) told Council members. “I think when we give money to the churches to help the youth, it keeps them off the street. We have a bad disposition with our youth and our police officers in this country, county and state. We need to help these young folks be more mindful and responsible for what they are doing. You don’t do that by slamming the door and not doing anything for them in rural areas where they never have the opportunity to see the ocean, the mountains or just travel the state.”

He also questioned why the program had come under fire the last two years.

“We’ve been doing this for the last six – seven years, and never had a problem with it till the last two years. Never a problem. . . I would like to see those accusations about receipts,” Marcharia said.

Johnson explained that prior to the last two years, receipts were not required.

“There was no application process,” Smith explained. “The money was in the discretionary fund and Council members gave the money out in their districts. So there were no complaints.”

Johnson said Council set aside $17,500 for grants last year.

“Twenty-two organizations applied for grants, and Council approved funding for 16 of those. But only 10 applicants were reimbursed for their expenditures because the other applicants either did not turn in receipts or their receipts were not in compliance (with the ordinance),” she said.

Johnson gave as an example an organization that received a $500 grant for a health and welfare project.

“The receipts were for biscuits for a devotional service, for attending a gospel program and eating dinner at Fatz Café,” Johnson said. “I sent a denial and spent 30 minutes on the phone with a representative from that organization. They got pretty heated. I’m sorry, but I don’t know how biscuits at McDonald’s are healthy. Eating at Fatz Café and going to a gospel meeting are not health and welfare.”

“I would be interested to know how much salary and time our staff spends in addition to the $500 grant money,” Smith said. “If we stuck to school supplies, I think we could all be agreeable, but if we are only doing school supplies, why couldn’t the County just buy that in bulk, saving us a lot of money. And it would not look like it’s coming from a Council member in that district as a campaign tactic.”

County Administrator Jason Taylor said he would be in favor of the County purchasing the supplies in bulk and then letting the schools determine which children are in need.

“While the goals of this program are honorable, it’s just not working. If we buy backpacks and fill them with school supplies, that could more efficiently accomplish what we are trying to do,” Taylor said.

Councilman Marion Robinson (District 5) said he couldn’t support the grants as they were handled in the past, but told Taylor he wanted to hear how other counties might be handling things like this.

Marcharia made one last stand for the application-based process.

“I think churches have more of a personal contact and would know if they need backpacks, pencils or what,” Marcharia said. “You don’t just buy in bulk and say here, come get it.”

Kinley suggested that the school district be asked “to put some money in the pot, too,” for the supplies.

Asked by Chairwoman Carolyn Robinson (District 2) for a timetable for resolving the issue, Johnson suggested by June 30 of next year because she said there is a lot of work to do to change the application process.

“I’d say after the November election,” Smith added. “I don’t want it to be a campaign thing.”

“It’s going to be a campaign thing,” said Marcharia, who is running for re-election in November.