The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 28, 2013

Arts and rec grants debated by Greenbrier County Commission

By Tina Alvey
Register-Herald Reporter

LEWISBURG — It appears that the Greenbrier County Commission plans to ask itself for a grant rather than simply allocate the funds needed for a special project.

The unusual situation is part of the fallout from an attempt by some officials to “level the playing field” for those seeking money from the county’s arts and recreation fund.

Hours after a contentious commission session during which the arts and recreation grants came under intense scrutiny, a member of the committee charged with recommending the allocation of those grants received an e-mail instructing him to submit an application for a county commission project.

The e-mail, which Doug Hylton said he received at 12:48 a.m. Wednesday, came from former commission President Betty Crookshanks, who left office at the end of last year.

“Betty told me to prepare an arts and rec grant application for the Meadow River Trail project and to put everything — including my salary — in the request,” Hylton said in an exclusive interview with The Register-Herald on Wednesday afternoon.

“Then at 9 this (Wednesday) morning, I got a call from Kelly (Banton, the commission’s assistant) telling me that Karen (Lobban, the commission’s president) wanted me to prepare the application, and later Karen called telling me the same thing — write an arts and rec grant application for the Meadow River Trail project,” Hylton continued.

He said, if the grant application is presented to the committee, it will mark the first time a county project will compete against other nonprofits for arts and rec grant money.

But if the application is submitted in the form that Crookshanks requested, Hylton said the committee would not approve the money for salaries, as that would be an illegal expenditure of bed tax money.

The Meadow River project is a joint endeavor between the Greenbrier and Fayette county commissions to convert an abandoned rail line into a recreation trail.

Hylton, who also serves as Greenbrier County’s grant writer, has already obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars for the project on behalf of the two commissions. During Tuesday evening’s Greenbrier County Commission meeting, he said he expects another outside grant to help defray the two commissions’ match for the larger grants that were awarded last year.

In his interview with The Register-Herald, Hylton said he feels he is being made the scapegoat for the uproar that occurred when newly-elected Greenbrier County Commissioner Woody Hanna — who turned back Crookshanks’ bid for re-election last year — proposed that Carnegie Hall, Greenbrier Valley Theatre and the county’s six libraries all go through the same application process that the smaller nonprofits do.

For the past five years, GVT and Carnegie Hall have made their appeal for bed tax (arts and rec) funding directly to the commission, as have the libraries.

Last year, Carnegie Hall and GVT each received $42,000, and the six libraries shared $85,000.

Although the commission ultimately voted 2-1, with Lobban dissenting, to make the change Hanna requested, most of the 50-plus people attending Tuesday’s meeting protested against the proposal, with many expressing fear that the application process could serve to decrease the funding each targeted organization receives from the arts and rec fund.

“We need to keep getting your support,” Cathey Sawyer, artistic director of GVT, told the commission. “I think (this change) is a step backwards.”

Sawyer, who also serves on the arts and rec committee, pointed out that GVT and Carnegie Hall each boasts a million-dollar annual budget; both are also independently audited. She suggested that it isn’t fair to anyone for organizations of that size to be compared to the smaller nonprofits which comprise the bulk of arts and rec grant applicants.

Carnegie executive director Susan Adkins assured the commission that the annual grant that goes to both organizations is “money well-invested,” noting that the arts have a huge economic impact on Greenbrier County.

Before calling for a vote on the issue, Lobban warned, “I am not for changing the way we have done this in the past.”

Hanna said the arts and rec committee was established as an advisory board for good reason, and that board should be fully utilized.

“I think we ought to require everyone to (apply for grants),” he said.

When the discussion continued even after the vote was taken, Commissioner Michael McClung, who voted with Hanna on the measure, flatly said, “We are not threatening the funding.”

Challenged by Lobban’s speculation that the arts and rec committee could recommend GVT, Carnegie and the libraries receive only $10,000 each, McClung responded that the ultimate decision on how much to award is up to the commission.

“We would support the current level of contribution,” McClung maintained.

Hanna echoed that sentiment, asserting, “This is not an attempt to reduce funding for any of these organizations.”

When asked by a reporter from another media outlet if he would guarantee there would be no reductions, however, Hanna backed away, saying, “I’m not ready to do that tonight.”

Hanna explained that he put forth the motion for a change in the application process because of complaints he heard on the campaign trail last year that some grant recipients were being given preferential treatment.

When Crookshanks took the microphone, she maintained that the reason Carnegie and others were removed from the application process had nothing to do with preferential treatment. Rather, she said, the arts and rec committee asked the commission to deal directly with the larger grant requests and leave the smaller ones to the committee.

Hylton explained the committee’s current posture, telling the meeting audience, “All we want is some accountability.”

He said some of the smaller nonprofits expressed concern that the county’s grant pool seems to be shrinking while the allocations for the larger grants remain close to previous levels. All told, nearly $400,000 was doled out last year in arts and rec grants.

Hylton told The Register-Herald that the committee was actually established to prevent controversies like this one.

“The committee is designed to keep politics out of the grant process,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure the procedures are done fairly. It was never our intent to take funding away from GVT or Carnegie. All we want is a simple one-page summary from them outlining what the funds are being asked for.

“There’s no accountability for them now. The other organizations that get grants have to present documentation proving that they are using the money for allowable purposes; the bigger organizations don’t do that.”

Returning to the question of the Meadow River Trail project, Hylton said, “This is a county project, and they (commissioners) want to ask themselves for funding. It doesn’t make any sense unless they’re trying to make a point.”

He added, “I don’t even know how much money is needed for the project right now; we’re still waiting to hear on other grant applications, and we base the budget on what we receive. They ought to wait until next spring, at the very least, to apply for arts and rec funding.”

Rather than apply for arts and rec grants, the commissioners generally make allocations for qualifying county projects directly from the bed tax fund, as they did when they appropriated $1.3 million for renovation of an indoor swimming pool late last year. That project is now on hold due to a legal challenge.

When contacted Wednesday by The Register-Herald, McClung said he did not feel the Meadow River Trail project’s arts and rec grant application should be seen as an attempt to make a point. Instead, he suggested the commission is simply trying to follow the procedure for bed tax allocation that was adopted in the previous evening’s meeting.

“The commission has created a committee to receive applications and submit recommendations on grants,” McClung said. “We should follow our own process.”

McClung said the amount that will be in the grant pool this year has not yet been determined, but promised the figure will be set before the arts and rec committee meets on March 25.

In addition to Hylton and Sawyer, the committee includes Roy Grimes, Linda Rodgers, Wallace Jones, Bonita Sienkiewicz and Kellen Leef. Hylton said he believes the commission recently decided to expand the membership from seven to eight, but the eighth member has not yet taken the oath of office.

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com