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City argues best use of grant funds

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, October 22, 2018

Elizabeth City city councilors haggled last week over how to carve up $28,000 for nonprofits, and debated whether they were being “subjective” or “arbitrary” with taxpayers' dollars.

Four city councilors and Mayor Bettie Parker reviewed this year's applicants for “Community Support Grants” during a finance committee meeting last Thursday. They agreed on some grant amounts and voted to send their recommendations to Monday's 7 p.m. council session, where the council could vote to hold a public hearing on them next month and then award them.

As it stands now, Kids First, a counseling service for abused children, and River City Community Development Corporation would get the most grant dollars, at $7,500 and $6,500 respectively. River City would notably get two grants, including $4,000 for operational expenses and $2,500 for its “HomeBuild” program to repair housing for low-income city residents.

The councilors also agreed to not provide Community Support Grants to three applicants, namely: Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, River City Community Sailing and the NC Blazers youth basketball team. City staff are looking to use tourism-related revenues toward buying boats the city would own, but the sailing group and others could use, and recommended funding the Blazers in next year's budget, due to the timing of their summer tournaments. As for Good Shepherd, which proposed providing music instruction at HL Trigg Community School, councilors expressed concerns about city government getting involved with a church and public education, the latter funded by counties but not cities.

The remaining eight applicants would get $4,000 or less.

Throughout Thursday's discussion, Parker stressed the council should not be “subjective” or “arbitrary” in how it awards the grants. However, she also said she believed each applicant should get some funding, arguing all had merits for the community. She suggested each get 25 percent of its grant application, which worked out to leave several thousand dollars left over that could “plus up” priority applications.

However, Councilors Billy Caudle and Johnnie Walton took a different approach. Caudle argued each application had different merits, and so he recommended different amounts for them.

However, Parker reiterated she considered his approach arbitrary. Caudle argued that Parker's approach, which still allowed councilors to give more money to groups they felt deserved more, was arbitrary as well. He urged her and other councilors to start giving specific numbers.

“At some point we've got to get off the proverbial pot here and make a decision about the money,” Caudle said, warning the council should not “bluster it to death.”

That made Parker shoot back, “I don't feel like I'm blustering; do you feel like you're blustering?”

Caudle responded he meant the council needed to plan how to spend the money. Councilors then went applicant by applicant to decide on funding amounts.

In reaching their funding recommendations Thursday, it was not clear how much councilors followed the CSG Program's guidelines. According to the city's grant application forms, the program's priorities are: arts and cultural activities, scientific education, basic needs like food and clothing, housing and shelter, health services, and recreation and athletic activities.

During the discussion, Councilor Jeannie Young asked if the council would follow those guidelines, which were set before new councilors were elected last year.

“I'm just saying how it's disbursed is up to us,” Walton responded, though the funding recommendations he supported were similar to grant awards in prior years.

However, he also recommended funding for iEmpower, a newly formed group proposing to provide a conference for youth leadership, saying its proposal was ultimately about “jobs.” Teaching youth about leadership and job opportunities is not a stated priority for the CSG Program, based on the city's application form.

Councilors decided to recommend the group get $2,500, rather than the roughly $9,300 it requested.

Parker also recommended the Eastern Women's Entrepreneurship Center get some support, with Assistant City Manager Angela Cole noting it's proposed training and consulting for the city's small businesses. Entrepreneurship and economic development also aren't in the CSG Program's guidelines.

Though the council is not bound by the program's written guidelines, those guidelines also explain to grant applicants – and the public – what the city council wants to fund and why.

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