County Council Grapples with Community Grants

WINNSBORO (Aug. 18, 2016) – Community Enhancement Grants, which were terminated by County Council last year, came under fire again last week during a Council work session; not only from some Council members but from the County’s financial staff as well.

Comptroller Laura Johnson reported that many who received the 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 (to get the receipts),” Johnson told Council. “In 2015 Council gave the $500 grants out first, then when we asked for the receipts, that was very difficult. I called people five and six times and that was a lot of work.”

After the County started asking for receipts before actually giving out the money, collecting the receipts put her staff in a difficult position, Johnson said.

“We found ourselves having to justify why we could not reimburse them,” she said. “Sometimes they became angry and they tried to justify why their receipts did not match the use on the application when it’s clear they didn’t match.”

While the grants were discontinued last year, the County has continued to earmark $2,500 per district ($17,500 total) for “the support of community based programs that develop or promote the improvement of quality of life activities for youth, adults and seniors.” But the application process itself has been 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, who said she is in favor of reinstating the $500 grants, suggested funneling the money to churches and other organizations to purchase school supplies or to provide assistance to individuals in the community who volunteer with youth and the elderly. Kinley took a dim view of requiring recipients of the grants to organizations that have 501(c)3 status.

“I don’t know that we can just give money to private individuals,” Councilman Billy Smith (District 7) told Council. “I think we’d need to check with the County attorney about that. 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 (a report on the pros and cons of the grant program in past years). We need to base our decisions on sound factual information, not politics.”

Smith read a list of organizations in the county to which he said the County government already provides almost $1 million each year.

“Currently, these allocations make up right at four percent of our annual budget. I term this program ‘incumbent campaign enhancement grants,’” Smith said. “I think it is political and campaign based. If it weren’t, then why do we care which district the money goes to?”

“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 said. “The money was in the discretionary fund and Council members gave the money out in their districts. So there were no complaints. The only ones who knew what was being given were the Council member and the group receiving it. No one was complaining.”

“Two years ago Council began requiring receipts,” Johnson said. “The $500 would be awarded, then the receipts had to be turned in by March 30. The next year Council required the receipts to be turned in before the grant money was given out.”

Johnson said last year $17,500 was set aside for grants, 22 organizations applied for grants and Council approved funding for 16 of those. But she said only 10 were reimbursed for their expenditures because the applicants either did not turn in receipts or their receipts were not in compliance with the ordinance.

Johnson said one organization applied for a grant in 2015 for a health and welfare project.

“They were approved for $500 based on turning in their receipts for what they said they were going to use the money for,” Johnson said. “The receipts were for biscuits for a devotional service, for attending a gospel program and eating dinner at Fatz Café. 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 finally said, ‘I don’t know how biscuits at McDonald’s is healthy. Eating at Fatz Café and going to a gospel meeting are not health and welfare.”

“I was on the phone from 5 to 7 with another organization for the same thing,” Johnson said. “We have to check the dates on receipts because some are old, not even in the fiscal year. We have to go through each receipt to be sure if it’s in line with the application.”

“I would be interested to know how much salary and time our staff spends in addition to the $500 grant,” 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 it 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 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 accomplish,” Taylor said. “Applying for grants as they are doing now is causing us a lot of work in the process. Streamline it and cut to the chase. Give them school supplies.”

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

“Our staff should not be spending time and money playing nursemaid when we’re trying to give someone free money,” Robinson said.

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) when they wanted to resolve 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 said. “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.