Text The Times.

Ingram pulls GIF funds from county

news@theeveningtimes.com

Senator Keith Ingram (DWest Memphis) has pulled his funding from East Arkansas Planning and Development District and transferred it to a planning district in Batesville, in Independence County, with no ties to Crittenden County, to administer.

Ingram, who represents State Senate District 24 (all of Crittenden, as well as portions of Cross, St. Francis, Lee and Phillips counties) asked EAPDD in September to present his request to the regional board to transfer $353,584 of his remaining General Improvement Funds to the White River Planning and Development District.

“I am formally requesting that the remaining balance of GIF funds for District 24 be transferred to the White River Development District,” Ingram wrote in a letter to EAPDD Executive Director Melissa Rivers.

The EAPDD board, which is made up of all of the county judges, several mayors, and at-large board members from Randolph, Clay, Lawrence, Greene, Craighead, Mississippi, Poinsett, Cross, Crittenden, St. Francis, Lee and Phillips county, agreed to the request at its quarterly meeting in September, but not without controversy.

Judge Woody Wheeless, who is on the board, said there were two votes taken — one to not approve the transfer, and one to let Ingram move the money to another district.

“It was controversial,” Wheeless said. “There were board members who said ‘no, we’re not going to let him move it.’ What changed their mind was that there were several members who felt it wasn’t going to hurt the district, and that if we didn’t let him move it he was just going to give the employees of EAPDD a hard time.”

Arkansas has eight regional planning and development districts throughout the state. The districts were set up by the legislature to be the state’s official multicounty planning and regional economic development organizations.

Each planning district is responsible for administering grants to promote and improve economic development of the region they serve.

General Improvement Funds are a pool of state money given to legislators for their districts to be used for city and county enhancements as well as for non-profit organizations.

Ingram said he moved the money to White River because EAPDD wanted to charge a four percent administrative fee, and that EAPDD officials complained that they were overburdened by having to administer GIF funds.

“EAPDD had tried to get a percentage for handling those funds,” Ingram said.

“They made a strong case to legislators that it was a burden on them and in order to do that they needed to get a fee. I was just trying to help them because they made it plain they were overburdened with the work. So I just moved it to another PDD that wasn’t interested in charging a fee for a certain percent of the funds.”

Ingram said he didn’t feel it was appropriate for EAPDD to ask for a fee because they already get paid to handle the money.

He would rather see 100 percent of the money go to the people applying for it instead of the money going for administrative overhead.

“I am of the opinion that there is already too much overhead with tax dollars and if we could take that money and use it to help the citizens with water systems and other projects, that four percent would mean more to the citizens rather than giving it for administrative overhead,” Ingram said.

Ingram said he isn’t the only legislator to move their funds to another planning district, and that it would not have any impact on Crittenden County projects getting funded.

“Nothing will change,” Ingram said. “They (planning districts) cross county lines all the time. And other legislators have done the same thing I did. I would just rather see 100 percent of the money go to the grantee rather than them being required

to pay some type of

fee.”

Melissa Rivers, Executive Director of East Arkansas Planning and Development District, said she never at any time ever told Ingram that EAPDD was overburdened by having to administer the GIF funds.

“That’s not the case at all,” Rivers said. “We have one and-a-half employees dedicated to this.”

Rivers said Ingram is also misrepresenting the facts by claiming that EAPDD is charging a four percent fee.

Last November, the Arkansas Association of Development Organizations, which is made up of the eight planning and development districts, met and did adopt a recommendation to ask the state for a four percent fee to administer GIF with a cap of $200,000 to recoup its costs.

The EAPDD board met last March and endorsed that recommendation to seek a fee to administer GIF.

When the proposal was brought before a joint meeting with legislators, Ingram was opposed to it and raised the question of whether it was legal or not to charge a fee on GIF funds.

Arkansas Association of Development Organizations agreed to put the request on hold while their attorney looked in to the matter. Arkansas Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion that PDDs could not legally charge an administrative fee from GIF money.

“The fact that he is saying we charged a four percent fee is not true. We never have charged an administrative fee at all,” Rivers said. “And no, we have never said this is too much of a burden and that we do not want to manage your funds. What we said to legislators was we are glad to do this as a strong partnership with the leaders in our community, but we need to find some way to recover the cost of operating the program.”

Marion Mayor Frank Fogleman, who is on the EAPDD board, said EAPDD’s request to ask for an administrative fee was not unreasonable.

“There is a cost associated with handling those funds,” Fogleman said. “Melissa has overhead. She has employees. And there is a lot of work on these.”

As a mayor, Fogleman said he is used to being charged an administrative fee from agencies who oversee grants.

“There has always been an administrative cost,” Fogleman said. “We got a grant for the James Mill sewer and we have gotten Economic Development Agency grants that EAPDD has administered for us.

They had some oversight services they provided.

They had to conduct a public hearing. They had to run an ad in the paper. Any planning and development district in the state is going to have to go through the paperwork, review it, answer some questions, and provide documentation. All of those costs came out of those grant proceeds. So I am accustomed to having to pay a fee for somebody to handle the paperwork.

As a recipient would I like 100 percent? Sure. But would I trade four cents for each dollar that I got? Sure. I would take that deal all day long.”

Wheeless said the real reason Ingram pulled his funding is because he got mad at Rivers and the EAPDD board because they voted to fund a project in Sunset which he sent a letter of support for but then wanted them not to fund.

“He (Ingram) is doing it because we have rules and he doesn’t want to go by those rules,” Wheeless said. “That’s all this is about.”

GIF money is available to cities and towns and unincorporated communities in rural areas of less than 20,000 in population.

Applicants must obtain a letter of support from their state representative and/or state senator and the application must be signed by the county judge or mayor who will be ultimately responsible for the grant should it be received.

Wheeless said the district got the application for the project with a letter of support from Ingram and that there was no reason to deny it.

“Melissa got a phone call from Keith and told her that he wanted all the judges and mayors to vote against the project,” Wheeless said. “It was presented to the board and it met all of the requirements so the board voted in favor of giving the money to Sunset. When that happened, Keith demanded that he get his money back from that project in his account from his district. So we had a special meeting and voted not to put it back into his account because that met all of the requirements to receive the money and we had a support letter from him.”

Wheeless said Ingram wanted to appear to be in support of the project and then be able to blame the board for not funding the project.

“That is throwing the board under the bus and that’s not right,” Wheeless said. “He (Ingram) wants to be able to say that if I want to give a support letter then I still have the right to say I don’t want to fund it. The board is not going to do that. They were adamant.”

Wheeless said while Ingram isn’t breaking any laws and has a right to give those funds to any planning district that he wants to, the money should stay with the local planning district.

Decisions on how that money gets appropriated will now be in the hands of county judges and mayors in Cleburne, Fulton, Independence, Izard, Jackson, Sharp, Stone, Van Buren, White and Woodruff counties.

“It’s a shame,” Wheeless said. “Those funds were allocated for this district and belong in this district. He represents this district. He doesn’t represent one individual in that district. That district doesn’t even know our needs or wants or anything else in our county. So those judges and mayors will be the ones voting yes or no for a district they don’t even represent. It is just about power and ego for him. We have elected officials in this county who use those funds correctly.

But when you have people like him who use it like he does, it is always going to cause an issue.”

Van Thomas, executive director of White River Planning and Development District, said he didn’t want the money but felt Ingram had a right to ask them to oversee the money.

“I don’t know that we wanted your money,” Thomas said. “To tell you the truth, it is just going to be additional work for us. I got a call from Keith Ingram asking if we would agree to a transfer of funds from East Arkansas Planning and Development to us. I don’t know him but we didn’t feel like we should not be responsive to that. So we said if that’s your wishes we will comply with you.”

Thomas admits that White River Planning and Development District does not know the needs of Crittenden County. “We don’t overlap you at all,” Thomas said. “I can’t say we sought this. It’s just one of those things where personalities get in the way.”

Fogleman said he doesn’t see why White River would want the money.

“There is more to it,” Fogleman said. “I think (White River) was accommodating a state senator. It does take some of the burden off of Melissa. The money is still going to go to cities and counties within Keith’s district. But it will be a different board voting on it.”

Representative Milton Nicks (D-Earle, District 50) said he doesn’t know why Ingram transferred the money, but added that he has no plans to move his money and that he works well with EAPDD.

“I don’t know the full details of why he requested that,” Nicks said. “I don’t particularly like the idea.

You can’t say one thing and do another. I think East Arkansas Planning and Development District and its board members should be covering our local area. I have not had a problem with them and I’m pleased with how they handle the GIF funds.”

Representative Deborah Ferguson (D-West Memphis, District 51) said she sees both sides of the argument.

She agrees with Ingram that the planning districts are already getting paid for the work they do and should not be allowed to charge an administrative fee on GIF money.

“I think everyone who voted against that felt that we were funding those districts and that it’s part of their responsibility and that they are being adequately compensated without getting any additional funding from GIF,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said Ingram’s decision to transfer his GIF money from EAPDD resulted from a misunderstanding about how the money gets administered.

“I can’t speak for Senator Ingram, but the gentleman’s agreement was always that he didn’t want to be the one to tell the people he was refusing the grant.

He wanted the refusal to come from east Arkansas Planning and Development,” Ferguson said. “He wanted to allow everybody who wants to apply for these grants to apply, but then tell them (EAPDD) which ones he wants them to fund. That didn’t get translated and caused some disagreement. I understand why Keith got aggravated by that.

“I’ve never done it that way. I’ve always felt like I would be honest and up front and say to all these people who have applied whether there is money left or there isn’t, or if I can, to try and spread it out a little bit. But I try to sit down and look at all the people who asked and try to be fair about it.

“So I think it was just a misunderstanding, that and then when they came two years ago and they wanted four percent. It wasn’t just Keith. There were others who were opposed to it.”

However, Ferguson said she is keeping her money in the district and has no problem with EAPDD.

“I am going to keep mine here,” Ferguson said.

“They have been great to work with. I have had a good experience with them personally for the GIF grants.”

Ingram said it may be time to look at consolidating the planning districts to make them more efficient, and has sponsored a senate joint resolution to that effect.

“When they brought that (fees) up a year ago it was the first I had heard of a PDD attempting to do that,” Ingram said. “That’s what got a number of our (legislators) attention regarding the function of the PDDs and whether we should combine PDDs in order to make them more efficient. I think that is something we are going to look at in the legislature.”

Rivers said Ingram’s actions speak for themselves.

“We’re disappointed that the senator made this decision,” Rivers said. “He’s made several threats that if this board does this we will never see another penny from the state.”

By Mark Randall

SHARE