February 9, 2010 in City

The high cost of free

Projects and programs feel pinch as grants are rejected or returned
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Jesse Tinsley photo

Ron Oscarson, director of facilities for Spokane County, stands in an attic space Monday in the historic county courthouse and ticks off the many structural, mechanical and cosmetic needs of the 1895 building. Much of the renovation so far has been helped by grants.
(Full-size photo)

Map of this story's location

At a glance

Spokane County relies heavily on grants and receives more than 100 of them every year.

In 2008, about 7 percent of the county’s general fund budget came from grants.

Grants totaled more than $11.7 million in the general fund, and $54.5 million in all funds.

Local governments often turn to grants to supplement tight budgets, but Spokane County is so broke it can’t even afford “free” money.

Facilities Director Ron Oscarson recently had to give back a $500,000 state grant to renovate the county courthouse because he couldn’t come up with $1 million in matching funds.

It’s difficult to let go of money already in his grasp and not be able to do work he had planned, Oscarson said.

Preserving the historic landmark courthouse and making it more functional is a labor of love for Oscarson.

“The history here is just amazing,” he said. “I would love to put back the marble countertops and the kind of woodwork that they had originally, but there are things you can’t do with today’s costs.”

Oscarson has laid out $6 million to $7 million worth of work that focuses heavily on efficiency: replacing antiquated heating and cooling systems and making better use of available space.

A $1.6 million grant, matched equally by the county, enabled renovation of the courthouse tower – where wind tilted the flagpole – and part of the first floor.

Eventually, the project will allow people to conduct routine business without having to take off their belts for security scanners. Family law courts – and metal detectors – will move from the first floor to the second. The high-traffic auditor’s, treasurer’s and motor vehicle registration offices will join the assessor’s office on the first floor.

Turning back the $500,000 grant will further slow a project that was supposed to have been completed last year.

However, the county was able to substitute a $354,164 grant from a different state program. That grant required only an equal match.

“We have tried to be very strategic about this,” said Jennifer Stapleton, who was hired two years ago as the county’s first grant administrator.

In addition to ensuring that grants are properly administered, Stapleton’s job is to make sure county departments don’t apply for grants that require more paperwork than they’re worth.

Also, Stapleton said, “We aren’t using resources to apply for funding that we are not in a position to match.”

She said county officials had hoped a $700,000 federal grant would provide most of the match for the ill-fated $500,000 courthouse renovation grant. But the county’s application was rejected.

Sheriff’s officers are similarly frustrated in their efforts to cut jail costs by helping inmates stay out of trouble when they are released.

A $750,000-a-year state grant might restore a community corrections program that was shut down in December for lack of money. But the county can’t afford strings that would come with the grant.

The “Second Chance” grant program ordinarily requires local governments to put up an equal amount, but a hardship provision would reduce Spokane County’s share to 50 percent.

However, even if the county could find the $375,000-a-year match, it would have to continue the program for two years after the three-year grant expired.

The county would be on the hook for more than $1.1 million a year – with nothing but red ink in sight.

Two weeks ago, county commissioners told sheriff’s Lt. Mike Sparber to avoid applying for the grant unless he can find a way to supplement it.

“I just don’t think it’s possible,” Chairman Mark Richard said.

Stapleton said grant givers are showing no inclination to reduce matching requirements.

Rather, with the state budget also in tatters, grant programs are shrinking – sometimes even after awards have been made.

Stapleton said a lot of federal grant money flows through the state, which may keep a greater share for its own uses.

“We’re at the bottom of the trickle-down,” she said.

Last week, county commissioners had to accept a $533 reduction in a $5,616 federal grant for Juvenile Court services and an $899,134 reduction in a $3 million grant to the Community Services Department.

The $3 million grant was to have helped 600 to 700 people with housing and job training after they were released from jail. The three-year pilot program ends in April 2011.

Community Services Director Christine Barada said the cut will reduce housing subsidies and supervision to help former inmates turn their lives around. “The sheriff is very interested in trying to expand these types of programs because they have shown a great reduction in recidivism,” Barada said.

Even long-term state and federal contracts aren’t what they used to be.

Most of Barada’s social service programs rely on regular allocations from the state and federal governments, not competitive grants.

Except for Medicaid mental health funding, which already was at the state’s lowest rate, formula-based payments were cut substantially in the current July-through-June fiscal year.

Barada said a 6.5 percent, $675,000 reduction in non-Medicaid mental health programs was offset by a special $700,000 state allocation for sending patients to Eastern State Hospital. But prospects for another special allocation are uncertain.

The county’s substance-abuse programs took a $1.2 million, 17 percent hit in the current fiscal year.

Also, Barada said, the county’s allocation to pay nonprofit organizations for developmental disability programs is down 7.7 percent, about $500,000.

“We are anticipating that there will be further reductions, but it is difficult to determine at this point what those might be,” Barada said.

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