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Travis Commissioners to organize approach to stimulus grants

Thursday, April 30, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt brought a proposal to Travis County Commissioner’s Court Tuesday that would streamline the process by which the county administers and vets grants from the federal government’s stimulus funds.


She told the court her proposal “wouldn’t change identification, decision making process or executions of the grant applications,” adding, “it only creates a ‘clearinghouse function’ in the intergovernmental director’s sphere in order to essentially treat it much like our legislative efforts have been treated over the past several months.”


Deece Eckstein, coordinator for intergovernmental affairs, would act “as repository of information coming from our various departments,” Eckhardt said, so that one person could be the point person for what Travis County is doing to attract federal dollars. She said the “grant-motivated” departments held a meeting on the matter.


Rodney Rhoades, executive manager of county planning and budget, followed up with commissioners on the status of the meeting. He said they discussed the need for administrative oversight in the reporting structure in the auditor’s office and outside departments. “There’s a great deal of reporting that’s required as part of the funds,” he told commissioners, while stressing that also includes reporting after the fact.


Commissioner Margaret Gomez wanted to ensure that current collaborative process, such as with CapMetro, could be used as a model to continue transparency.


“One thing that became very apparent is that we need to ensure that we do have some court-adopted policies in place as it relates to the stimulus money,” Rhoades said.


Eckhardt said, “Because the dollar amounts are so much larger, there is a much higher opportunity for collaboration with other entities,” she said.


One entity that was not consulted was the County Auditor, Susan Spataro, who had some comments for the court.It doesn’t feel very collaborative when I’m the chief financial officer, I’m the one that has to file the financial statements and sign them for the grants and my grants people are not told of the meeting or included.” She said such action “makes me think people are not thinking of the cost of administration of these grants. It is something that has to be thought of.”


She explained that her office was granted a full time employee to administer the Community Development Block Grants and that her office now had six employees working on grants. Spataro asked the court “not ignore the work it takes to administer those,” and said the current load would require an additional employee or 20 percent overtime for her current hires.


Spataro sought to bring some awareness to the background of the situation. “If we don’t handle (grants) right, it endangers our ability to get them in the future. If the reports aren’t in on time, they don’t want to give us money.” Saying that there was a lot of “unexciting” work that had to be done she said the county was short-staffed and even if staff were added “they would have nowhere to sit.” Currently the county is filing 682 grant reports a year and 54,000 grant transactions. Eckhardt praised Spataro’s points and called Tuesday’s discussion the beginning.


Judge Sam Biscoe said Eckstein’s office would be “inundated with legislation” and didn’t think their office would be able to handle the torrent of information coming from the federal government. He said that department managers would be vital to understanding the grants and the specifics of their department. Biscoe told Eckhardt, “We ought to try to get you and another member of the court to meet with executive managers, purchasing, the auditor and come back with us, not only with a recommendation as to who the point person or point department should be, but any of the other specific things that we should be doing.” Biscoe also said it could benefit the county to spend a little on more staff if they could net the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.


Alicia Perez, executive manager for administrative operations, said tracking the stimulus money was a difficult task. “I think right now there’s still a lot that we don’t know about the federal stimulus, how to apply, what the money exactly will be used for and what the approval process is. We are in the process of learning, attending webinars, luncheons and finding out all the information that we can.”


The court unanimously voted that Commissioners Eckhardt and Gomez work with Eckstein, department managers and the financial arms of the county “to put together a proposal that enables us to cooperate and collaborate and be more systematic in our efforts to access the national stimulus dollars.”

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