Highland County Commissioners (l-r) Gary Abernathy, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton are pictured at their Wednesday, Dec. 5 meeting. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Highland County Commissioners (l-r) Gary Abernathy, Jeff Duncan and Terry Britton are pictured at their Wednesday, Dec. 5 meeting. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Exactly two years and two months after Highland County commissioners announced the awarding of an $843,498 U.S. Department of Justice grant for the Rocky Fork Lake region, commissioners Jeff Duncan, Terry Britton and Gary Abernathy voted Wednesday, Dec. 5 to withdraw from the grant.

Following an executive session Wednesday morning (for “personnel and economic development”) involving all three commissioners and Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera, commissioners voted 3-0 in open session “to notify the Department of Justice that we will forgo this grant and begin the process of closing it out,” which was a non-agenda item.

“It all boils down to I think we’ve agreed to disagree,” Duncan said of the county’s ongoing efforts with the Department of Justice.

 


As previously reported in The Highland County Press, the over $800,000 grant was awarded in October 2016, following an October 2014 grant of $100,000 through the Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation Program’s effort to reduce crime in designated communities. The initial grant allowed Highland County to design a strategic, collaborative and community-oriented plan to reduce crime in target neighborhoods. LuAnn Winkle, executive director of Turning Point Applied Learning Center, led the 18-month grant application process.

Abernathy said that he had hoped to “tackle this with fresh eyes” when he joined the commission this summer, but “it didn’t take long to realize the frustration that everybody else had been dealing with.”

“The DOJ expressed no problems with that whatsoever,” Abernathy said of the initial $100,000 grant. “Then we won the $843,000 grant, and as soon as they awarded it, they said ‘Turning Point can’t be doing this, and we can’t have a land bank as part of your proposal,’ even though these things were all very clearly spelled out. And frankly, the minute they said that Turning Point couldn’t do this is when this thing started to go south in a big way.”

Abernathy said that funding was “frozen” by both commissioners and the Department of Justice. “[Commissioners] were worried they might have to return the law enforcement funds, the way things were going,” Abernathy said. “I think they wisely froze everything. Since then, we’ve been going back and forth.”

However, Britton said that the county may have to refund the money spent on the project, although he did not indicate how much that would be.

“It really started out to be a great thing for the area,” Britton said. “Unfortunately, the process has deterred it to the point where we just can’t go on.

“From what we’ve done so far, there is a possibility the county will have to pay back some of that money that’s already been spent. Unfortunately, that’s a possibility.”

The Highland County Press published a letter to the editor Sept. 26 written by commissioners, who said they had decided to withdraw a request for a 12-month extension to correct the issues with the grant. At that time, commissioners wrote that “withdrawing the request for an extension and agreeing to address the most important goals with local funding, we are ending the uncertainty about the future of the lake.”

However, the next day the Department of Justice informed the county that the 12-month extension had been granted, although the county was told the revised budget was not yet approved, and open issues from a past site visit still needed to be addressed before any funds could be released. During the commissioners’ next meeting Oct. 3, they announced that they would continue working to pursue the grant funding.

“They gave us a 12-month extension, and unfortunately we were two months into that extension and basically no further along then we were previously,” Duncan said. “We just can’t meet the criteria they’ve laid out for us.”

“Instead of this being a one-year extension or a two-year grant, we’re looking at this for the long term,” Britton said. “That’s the way we really want to go. It’s unfortunate it’s come to this, but we almost made this decision two months ago. Then they gave us the extension, and now, after we’ve been through this two-month period with them, it’s very obvious we need to cut the cord.”

Two months into the extension, Abernathy said the county would need “an additional extension to the 12 months.”

“The DOJ has indicated to us on the phone that there’s no certainty of that happening,” Abernathy said. “They want us to go ahead and proceed under the 12-month plan, but they won’t release any funds to do it. We’re not about to spend taxpayer dollars here locally without any guarantee that grant funds are ever going to be released.

“We just don’t have the ability, for a lot of reasons, to carry this out.”

One of those reasons is a discrepancy between the language of the grant and of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) contracts, according to Abernathy. The grant to help reduce crime in Rocky Fork Lake was to include “targeted enforcement areas” by the Highland County Sheriff’s Office, with three new deputies at the lake.

“Under the grant, we cannot fund existing deputies. It has to be a new deputy,” Abernathy said. “Under the new FOP contract, deputies have a right to bid on shifts, so we can’t guarantee a deputy at the lake would be a new deputy. Secondly, even if we could, we’re now into this 12-month extension period where the sheriff really would take a month or more, most likely, to get a deputy trained and established there.

“We did ask the FOP for a waiver of the contract on that provision, which they declined to do, but again, not to lay anything on the FOP because frankly, even with that, the sheriff has indicated it would take a long time to identify, find and train a deputy to work down there.”

Although commissioners are rejecting the grant, Abernathy said “the whole lake grant process has been profitable, in terms of the meetings that were held, the studies that were done – we have a lot of great information that we gained.”

Abernathy added that the county can still work to accomplish the grant’s initial goals, saying the county can use the information and feedback collected from the community for “things we can actually make happen more effectively on our own, without the never-ending roadblocks of the federal government.”

“This is a grant that never would have been applied for in Highland County, ever, without Turning Point,” Abernathy said. “Small counties like ours don’t have the ability to administer grants of this size.”

Abernathy cited a study conducted at the end of the Obama administration, which he said determined “that small rural counties cannot compete for or administer grants like this, even if they win them.” “It had several recommendations I think the federal government should go back and look at,” he said.

Duncan also discussed what he called “the positive part of a negative type of situation.”

“We did originally get a $100,000 grant and work through that process, and in that process we drew attention to the region and the needs down there,” Duncan said. “The concern that we had all along here in this office, once the grant was finished, was sustainability – how we were going to continue with what we had started down there.

“We feel like we’ve already got a great start down there. The ODNR [Ohio Department of Natural Resources] has spent money down there because of the light that’s been cast in that community. We’ve got a new medical facility that’s being built down there. I think that was a result of the start of the grant. We’ve got a library that’s going to be established down there. We met with the sheriff this morning, and he’s agreed to put a law enforcement officer down there as much as possible.”

The proposed county land bank – which, as mentioned, was a part of the county’s plan for the grant but not permitted by the Department of Justice – was also discussed during Wednesday’s meeting, as commissioners said they hope to vote on funding for that project by the end of the year.

“We can do those things on our own,” Duncan said. “The concern of sustainability – we feel like we can do it, maybe not on as large a level as the grant would have let us, but on a lesser level continue to do the things we set out to do.”

Abernathy said that the county could work toward sustainability by stopping “this endless stalemate” with the Department of Justice.

“We’ll actually be able to start doing something at the lake area, free of the holdups with the grant,” Abernathy said.

Abernathy thanked Sen. Rob Portman, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, State Sen. Bob Peterson and State Rep. Shane Wilkin (who was Highland County commission president at the time the grant was awarded) for their efforts with the grants. “They’ve all been helpful,” Abernathy said. Britton also thanked the Rocky Fork Community Alliance “for all the work they’ve done.” 

Related story: https://highlandcountypress.com/Content/In-The-News/In-The-News/Article/Wilkin-It-s-a-great-day-for-Highland-County-/2/20/35202