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Saturday, Aug 18, 2018
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Hernando County wants taxpayer grant recipients to show their math

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years on taxpayer-funded grants to outside agencies and organizations, including $396,000 for the current year.

Those dollars have gone to everything from the Chinsegut manor house and the now-defunct Florida Blueberry Festival to providing start-up money for a community garden at Kass Circle and landscaping a traffic island near Hernando Beach.

Now county commissioners want more accountability from the groups receiving the funds and a more cohesive policy for applicants to follow.

Commissioners have varying opinions about how to make that happen, but they agree on one requirement.

"We want to know where the taxpayer dollars are going,’’ said commission Chairman Steve Champion. "We want an itemized list of where every dollar was spent.’’

Commissioners discussed the new grants policy earlier this month and will consider final approval Feb. 13. They want to make funds available for needed projects, but also make sure those funds provide a public benefit.

Past spending has raised questions about that.

Two separate grant programs have been in place for several years. One is the Community Outreach Grant, which began in 2014 and was funded this year at $50,000. Ten or more community organizations can receive up to $5,000 each in this program. The grants are for churches, schools, nonprofits and community groups. They must pay the costs of their projects up front and seek reimbursement afterward by providing receipts.

Those seeking funds fill out applications and gear their projects to particular county goals, ranging from healthy and safe lifestyles to promoting tourism. A team reviews the applications and picks the winners. Outreach grants have gone to groups ranging from the Dawn Center, the county’s domestic abuse shelter, to the Crescent Community Clinic.

The county’s other grant program provided larger sums to bigger programs and projects. It has been driven by organizations making direct pitches to county commissioners for money. Those grants required no application at the beginning or accounting reports at the end.

The largest of them has been funded for several years. It goes to the American Manufacturing Skills Initiative or AmSkills, a training program based on a European apprenticeship model.

During budget discussions last year, Champion voiced concern that the $200,000 annual allocation to AmSkills wasn’t bringing enough return in the form of workers trained for specific local jobs. He was outvoted when it came time to approve the funding.

Another annual allocation went for years to the Florida Blueberry Festival, with $50,000 in the budget for the past fiscal year. While festival organizers argued that their books showed proper accounting, criticisms about a lack of funding transparency haunted the program until last spring when the group left Hernando County for good.

Commissioner John Allocco said he had concerns about the Blueberry Festival allocation in the past. He wondered how it provided economic benefits to Hernando County when the vendors came from elsewhere. He feared that some groups would keep asking for more and more funding.

"They never become self sufficient,’’ he said. "Is that what we want to be doing?’’

Other large grants have gone to Chinsegut, the Hernando County Fair Association, the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce Small Business Development Center and the Brooksville Main Street Program.

One proposed policy change would require large grantees to get their funding the way smaller grantees do — by providing receipts proving where the dollars went.

But Commissioner Nick Nicholson objected. Nicholson, who serves as the commission liaison to the fair, argued that groups proposing bigger projects need the funding up front. They can provide proof of their spending after the fact, he said.

"It’s not going to work to reimburse them,’’ he said. "They can’t build the project first because the don’t have the money to do that.’’

The fair received $30,000 from the county this year to build a new porch on the auditorium.

Commissioners agreed with Nicholson, as long as receipts showed grantees used the funding as they had projected.

Commissioners also talked about setting a maximum sum for the large grants — possibly $50,000 — and cutting off funding for organizations that did not prove they spent their money appropriately.

The county staff already began requiring this year’s grant recipients to show they spent their money for a use benefiting the public. That was put in place after a recent legal challenge to a grant program in south Florida, officials said.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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