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Battle for Waterways Funding

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Grant revision results in a fight by state and county officials to continue funding

It didn’t seem like much when it started last year. The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation decided to revise its grant funding criteria of four funds over which it controls disbursements – Recreational Vehicle; Off Road Motor Vehicle; Recreational Trails; and Waterways Improvement Projects. According to IDPR Director Rick Collingnon, the change was necessary and needed.

    “While considering the recommendations from the various Advisory Committees on the 2001 project applications... the board expressed some concerns over the differences in how each of the four funding programs were rated by the committees,” he wrote. “The Board also found it difficult to gain any insight into a project’s alignment with the agency’s strategic plan goals, user needs or the quality of the funding requests. The systems used appeared to simply rank the individual projects from best to worst in each funding category without consideration of agency goals or user data.”

    Are you lost yet?

    When a Sheriff’s Department needs a boat motor; when a National Park needs a dump station for RVs; when the Forest Service needs to improve a hiking trail, Idaho’s Department of Parks and Rec is one of the places they can turn to for money to fund those projects. Parks and Rec collects funds in various ways – through user fees, the sale of special license plates and taxes; gas taxes, for example, the percentage of those taxes collected from the sale of marine fuel.

    To get that money, public entities write grants, which are rated by an IDPR advisory committee, and are then decided upon by the IDPR Board of Directors. And there was the rub. “It started four or five years ago,” explained the Region I (northern Panhandle) representative to that board, Bob Haakenson, “(when) we realized we had very little input in the process. We started looking at all programs, took two or three years. All we want to do is make this more meaningful for our committee (which is made up of recreational resource users).”

    Sounds pretty simple so far, right?

    The board wanted to make it easier, as well, so the first and major change was to combine the grant guidelines for all funds into one document... and to do it at the eleventh hour. That’s when a few county entities sat up and took notice.

    “The deadline for 2002 grant applications was January 25th this year,” explained Bonner County’s Public Works Director, Tim Elsea. “Our Waterways Improvement Committee has to approve our grant, so we have it completed and submitted before that date.” But on Jan. 18, the new guidelines came out, “giving us no chance to write our grants to meet those guidelines.”

    The bigger problem, however, is not in the deadline; because Elsea, along with others, thinks the new criteria will prevent him from writing any fundable grants at all – at least, not for waterways improvement projects.

    Although IDPR does not have an official policy that states multiple use of public resources is the best use of them, the new criteria seem to suggest that’s the case. In case you didn’t realize, motorboats, sailboats, kayaks and fly fishermen wading into the water up to their hips in any of our local waterways do not constitute multiple use. You can’t hike on a lake; you can’t ride horses over it; you can’t even camp on it because, if you do, they still call it boating.

    Still, if multiple use projects get favored in the funding process, what’s that matter as far as waterways improvement projects go? There was close to $1 million in the Waterways Improvement Project fund last year, and those funds must be used for improvements to Idaho’s waterways - they can’t be used to pay for new hiking trails in Ada County.

    But the Sheriff’s boat motors, or the county’s mooring buoys and boat docks, aren’t the only things that qualify for waterways improvement funding – the federal and state government applies for its share, as well. Last year the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and even the IDPR itself applied for, and received, these grant funds – over $516,000 of the $717,000 total that was appropriated. Their projects can, and do, qualify as multiple use. For example, a boat ramp built in a public park, with maybe an RV dump nearby provides services for boaters, campers, hikers and RVers. In other words, multiple users.

    IDPR even granted itself $96,293 in 2001 for a project at the Indian Creek Boat Landing in Priest Lake – and if you’re wondering why an agency gets to approve grants to itself, well, it’s because that is just the way it is done. That might be how they were able to earn points for matching funds that were actually funding received from other grants they control, which also required matching funds that were received from the first grant. If that sounds a little bit like kiting checks - well, it does to us, too.

    The new guidelines, which already appear to favor larger entities like IDPR and federal agencies, gives them another advantage as well – the points given for being able to provide matching funds. Over $800,000 was matched by the projects listed above. “Look at those numbers,” Elsea pointed out. “We can’t compete with that.”

    And compete is exactly what they would have to do – because the guidelines state that no more than 25% of all available funds can go to any one county. Kootenai County, second in the state in boatable acres and first in the state in boater registrations (Bonner County is first and second in those areas, respectively) was prevented from receiving any waterways improvement funds last year because the 25% max to their county was used in total by the Bureau of Land Management’s $215,000 project to provide utilities, restrooms and shelters on the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Rivers.

    “We could really be hurting (under these new criteria),” Elsea added. Bonner County has used WIP funds for rebuilding docks, building a boat launch in Hope, and for mooring buoys and pump out stations.

    That’s a worry Haakenson says is unfounded. “I don’t share that concern, and neither does the board,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. If we see there are problems, we’ll make changes. If the advisory committee doesn’t take care of it, the board will.”

    Elsea takes no comfort in a promise that the board is looking out for the county’s interests, however. He says the process in appealing these new criteria has robbed him of any faith in expecting the board to do the right thing.

    “Here in Bonner County, our Commissioners and our Sheriff and our Waterways Commission wrote letters to Director Collingnon,” he said. “We were asking them to slow down and re-group, hear our concerns about these changes. Basically we all got the same form letter back – and the message was, “Don’t bother me.”

    Tom Suttmeier, chairman of the Bonner County Board of Commissioners, then wrote to Governor Dirk Kempthorne, and pointed out how IDPR had violated their own regulations in adopting the new criteria, with a copy to Collingnon.

    “I am deeply concerned,” he wrote. “The IDPR Board voted to approve new criteria where all four funds are rated using one set of criteria. This action was taken... without local agency input, without providing workshops... and without providing draft copies of the criteria to local agencies... we had no opportunity to prepare our grants with an eye to the new criteria.”

    Suttmeier added, “Governor, when you read my letter, you will notice that the tone is terse. While I regret the tone... I regret more the need for that tone.... It is apparent that the Director (Collington) did not take the concerns seriously.”

     “The implementation of the new criteria was put on hold, and the next afternoon I received a phone call from Director Collingnon,” Elsea explained.

    In that conversation, Elsea believes he was told local users of the grants, like his own office, would be allowed input into the grant criteria, and that there was still time to make changes.

    A workshop was held in June, and another meeting was held in July. “To my amazement, not one of our concerns was addressed. The response was to try and explain (them away).” What bothered Elsea even more was an explanation he was given that it was the Board’s intention for the new criteria to be more “subjective.”

    “If I told my constituents that I was going to spend their money more subjectively, and less objectively, I wouldn’t be here long,” he said in amazement.

    At a workshop held just two days later, Elsea and others were told that “a lot of effort had been spent in the direction of the new criteria, and it was just too late in the game to change them.”

    Not that Elsea gave up. He was at the IDPR Board meeting in August to voice his concerns. “I was astonished to discover that only 15 minutes would be given to this topic.”

    Elsea wasn’t alone in his attempts to get the board to address his concerns – his counterpart in Kootenai County was equally as vocal, along with our county commissioners. Our state legislators were also in the thick of things.

    “To say I am disappointed in the lack of responsiveness and serious deliberation of our collective concerns would be an understatement,” wrote Senator Shawn Keough to Collingnon. “As I stated before the Board at the (August meeting), I ...do now feel compelled to introduce legislation to ensure that the integrity of the original intent of these programs is upheld and not subject to monkey-wrenching by the Department.”

    Representative George Eskridge wrote the State and Federal Aid Manager, Brian Miller: “In general, I fail to see any response to the concerns and input many of us... provided (at the August meeting.)”

    “Maybe you’re beginning to get an understanding of our frustration,” Elsea explained. “Every time we have tried to open an honest discourse, we get a lot of head nodding and understanding words, but not one of our concerns has been addressed.”

    Although there is an official appeal process that can be followed, Elsea is now placing his hopes in the hands of Representatives George Eskridge and John Campbell. “I’m hoping this can be addressed through the Natural Resources Committee,” he said. “I don’t believe the (IDPR) board of directors is hearing what we’ve been trying to say.”

    What Elsea won’t do, however, is give up – or shut up. “The only thing I ask is let me compete fairly (for these dollars),” he said. “Don’t give other entities the advantage by writing the criteria for their benefit.”

 

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Landon Otis

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