$1 million for nonprofits held up by federal red tape, county says

The flag of Portage County. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

County officials have yet to divvy up $1 million in federal stimulus funds to local nonprofits, citing the difficulty of complying with stringent rules for tracking and monitoring the money.

In May 2022, county commissioners invited area nonprofits to request a share of Portage County’s American Rescue Plan Act allocation. Dozens answered the call (they are listed at the bottom of this article), but the agencies are now being advised not to hold their breath.

“I want to make it clear to the public, we are going to help you. We very much want to help you and get this money out when we can responsibly, but I would not budget that money anytime soon because we’ve got to get our ducks in a row,” County Administrator Michelle Crombie recently told commissioners.

The reason is red tape.

The county is responsible for maintaining an administrative system to oversee contract compliance and for tracking the money even after it’s been distributed, county Grants Administrator Hope Bonos said. Should the money not be used as planned, county taxpayers would be on the hook.

“That’s kind of scary to me. How do you control that?” outgoing Commissioner Vicki Kline asked.

Caught between the county’s inability to track the spending with its own staff and knowing that doing nothing would not be a good look, Commissioner Sabrina Christian-Bennett wondered how to proceed.

“The people who are requesting these funds, they need these funds like yesterday, and it’s not going away going into next year,” Christian-Bennett said. “I just don’t want to say, ‘We’re not going to do any of this. We’re going to keep the million ourselves because it’s too much tracking and we can’t.’ If we can do something, it’s better than nothing.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Christian-Bennett noted that the county has until 2024 to distribute the funds to the nonprofits, but wondered if staffing and tracking issues would get in the way.

“My concern is this is taking so long,” Christian-Bennett said. “It’s one thing if we get a legal opinion that says we can’t fund a program when we put this out there for over a year. It’s another thing if we say we don’t have the staffing, we don’t have the ability to track it so we’re just going to do away with it.”

Aided by the county prosecutor’s office, commissioners hired the law firm Bricker & Eckler to help determine how to distribute the money. Commissioners may also have to hire an accounting firm to track the dollars.

“It’s not just dollar amounts,” Bonos said. “It’s, ‘Is it eligible? Is it public health related?’ It has to meet very strict criteria. And then they also have to follow procurement guidance as well. We’re responsible if they don’t follow that, and then if they don’t, we have to use taxpayers’ money to pay that back.”

Explaining the parameters of government funding is no easy task.

“CARES was a direct response to the public health emergency and addressed medical and public health needs,” Bonos said, referring to another Covid-era federal stimulus package. “Regulations on CARES were not as strict as ARPA. ARPA is intended to provide support for communities, households, small businesses and industries who have been hit hardest by the crisis. It’s intended to make necessary investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.”

ARPA has more reporting requirements than CARES, Bonos said. After signing contracts with approved organizations, the county would still be responsible for completing quarterly reports for the U.S. Treasury Department, indicating how money is being used, how it relates to Covid, and if they qualify for the funding, commissioners learned.

How, Commissioner Tony Badalamenti asked, can the county make organizations adhere to such rules?

“Ultimately, we can’t make them do anything, quite honestly. We have very little control over that,” Crombie said, noting that the county can hire a knowledgeable accounting firm.

Since March 2022, Bricker & Eckler’s services have cost some $34,213, all of it ARPA funds, Crombie said. Hiring an accounting firm would add to administrative costs, “but how much money do we want to spend to be able to give money?” she asked.

The money would be well spent if a knowledgeable accounting firm was handling the paperwork, Christian-Bennett said, though Badalamenti wanted to know what an accounting firm’s hourly charge would be, how it would track the money so county taxpayers don’t end up on the hook, and how the job would be staffed.

Crombie asked the commissioners to come up with a ceiling they would be willing to pay to the accounting firm.

Crombie said she is meeting with other county administrators to see what they are doing.

“No one is a real expert. I want to ask, ‘How much you have paid your accountants and in legal fees?’” she told the commissioners.

County ARPA funds have already been used to purchase ultraviolet bulbs for the county’s Homeland Security & Emergency Management office, software for the county building department, cybersecurity upgrades for the county Information Technology Department, and recycling trucks for the recycling center, Bonos said.

On deck are more IT department cybersecurity upgrades, construction of a new Emergency Operations Center for the county EMA, an EMA broadband project, various projects for the county water resources department, and consoles for a new dispatch center at the sheriff’s office, she said.

The county’s intention to use ARPA funds for the construction of three emergency communications towers hit a snag, though, when commissioners learned they would have to forgo the ARPA money or keep the towers for “50 years or the useful life of the facilities, whichever is longer.”

Since the commissioners had planned to follow common practice by turning the towers over to the state as soon as they were built, county taxpayers will, as originally planned, foot the as-yet-undetermined costs, Crombie said.

Portage County nonprofits that have requested funds:

  • Community Action Council
  • Leadership Portage County 
  • AxessPointe 
  • Community Health Centers 
  • Habitat for Humanity of Portage County 
  • Children’s Advocacy Center
  • Raven Packs
  • Land Bank
  • RSA Food Shelf
  • King Kennedy Community Center
  • United Way of Portage County Community Funded Partners- United Way 2-1-1 Information Line- United Way
  • Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library of Ohio (DPIL)-United Way Portage Foundation
  • Hope Town/Hope Village
  • LoveLight, Inc.
  • H.O.M.E. for Youth
  • Harmon High PTO
  • Main Street Ravenna
  • UH Portage Medical Center
  • Free Agents 4 Recovery
  • Portage County Historical Society
  • Rootstown Historical Society Cemetery Project Heaven
  • Hiram Christian Church 
  • Hiram Farm
  • James A. Garfield Children’s Advantage
  • Standing Rock Cultural Arts
  • Change Hunger
  • The Haven of Portage County
  • Liberty Camp for Kids
  • Upper Room Ministries Cultural Development Corporation
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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.