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Grant funding getting harder to come by

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By MIKE GIBSON
newsroom@roanecounty.com
There’s no better money than free money.
That was the sentiment expressed by Kingston Mayor Troy Beets, and avidly seconded by members of Kingston City Council, upon hearing a report from the city’s grant coordinator Steve Jacks at an October work session.
Jacks had been asked by Beets to do research on what grant monies might be available to help the city fill some of its needs, and Jacks gave a preliminary report at the session. There was some bad news; but also some good news — enough for Beets to encourage Jacks to press on.
“I’d like us to be really aggressive in applying for grants,” Beets said.
According to Jacks, it’s necessary to take a sort of “seasonal” approach to grant writing; many grants are administered in either October or March, corresponding with the beginnings of many agencies’ fiscal years.
“A lot is dependent on those funding cycles,” Jacks said. “People want to get their money spent before the next budget starts.”
In tough economic times, though, grant opportunities have gotten more scarce, as the flow of federal funds to states has threatened to dry up.
“And what money is available, is usually available to the bigger counties and cities first,” Jacks said. “They don’t like to say that, but that’s usually what happens.”
And what funds are available have more strings attached: more matching funds required; and loans with payback plans instead of outright grants — as was the case with a recent loan/grant Kingston received, then turned down, for the library.
“The water projects the city is doing, a lot of times they have to borrow a large part of the money,” Jacks said. “Then there’s the Ladd greenway. They’re having to borrow $1 million. It’s hard coming up with matching funds. It’s part of the problem a lot of small governments have. The match kills you.”
Another issue: many grants now come through foundations, and foundations are less likely to give money to government entities. There are ways around such limitations, Jacks said. He noted that the Kingston Library used to receive money from the Volunteer Energy Cooperative, until that agency stopped giving money to government agencies.
But the library foundation — a nonprofit organization, independent of the city — can still apply for grants.
Jacks would like to see the city take advantage of more such opportunities by helping found a nonprofit regional arts council.
The arts council could promote the arts through guest artists and musicians, summer programs and classes, and also take advantage of arts-related grants for which the city would not be eligible.
“Part of the library foundation charter calls for something like that,” he adds.
In the meantime, there are a few grants programs that may hold promise for the city.
The state Department of Transportation offers so-called “enhancement grants” for making city roadways more attractive — by adding bike paths and putting utilities underground — with a 20-percent match required.
Another possibility is a used-oil grant, whereby the city would receive funds to initiate a program to collect and recycle used oil for use in heating.
Grants for the parks department, the fire department (for a new fire truck), and the police department (for four new bullet-proof vests) are either already in the works or in the planning stage.
In each instance, funds have already been saved or budgeted.
“We’re just beginning to look at what’s out there,” Jacks said. “But it is getting harder to find things, I’ll say that. Eight years ago, the money was flowing. Now, it’s just not there the way it was before.”