Editor’s Note: This editorial appears in the December 2022 edition of The Rant Monthly.

We’re not against the idea of a “dream center.” There are hundreds of them in the United States — the first and largest in Los Angeles, its mission to fight homelessness, hunger and lack of education through various outreach programs. The one in Raleigh provides outreach to the homeless, as well as abused and impoverished young people and families. The connecting thread is that they’re run by faith-based nonprofit organizations.

We bring this up because of the recent vote by the Lee County Board of Commissioners to award a three-year, $500,000 grant to the Life Springs Action Team (born just months ago as a ministry of Life Springs Church in Sanford). The grant will go toward Life Springs’ Dream Center, which according to its website seeks to prevent human trafficking, provide education and therapeutic activities, and build a better community through outreach programs.

The funding will also go toward an ambitious $800,000 building (more on that below).

We’re not coming out against the Dream Center idea. Sanford is home to several outstanding outreach programs, and there’s always room for more.

Our concern is with the perceived “behind closed doors” way this half-a-million-dollar grant was introduced, called to vote and passed with little discussion and zero public input, outside of the input from the Life Springs congregation, who helped pack the commission chambers in support of the grant’s passage on the night of the vote.

In that meeting, Lee County Manager John Crumpton presented the grant proposal as a “new business” item and urged the commissioners to take their time in considering the plan before making a three-year commitment. Crumpton’s “think it over” request was brushed aside by Arianna Lavallee, who in her final meeting as a commissioner requested a vote without further study, despite objections by multiple commissioners.

The vote eventually passed, 6-1, with Robert Reives the lone objector.

“There has been no discussion so far about how this is all going to work,” he said before the vote. The problem is — there was discussion. Only Reives apparently wasn’t part of it.

In a recorded Life Springs Church sermon a week prior to the vote, Pastor Dale Sauls urged his congregation to attend the meeting on the night of the vote, saying, “We’ve been invited to petition the county commissioners … and they seem to be leaning in.”

Sauls, with 30 years of experience as a pastor with Life Springs (formerly San Lee Chapel), has a well-documented history of community outreach in Sanford, and some of the programs associated with the Dream Center plan have already been implemented in the last few years. But Sauls and outgoing Commissioner Lavallee (whom he campaigned for in 2018) played the game masterfully in her final act as a commissioner.

Sauls was also front and center months prior at Sanford City Council meetings in September as Councilman Charles Taylor led an effort to remove a 30-year-old ordinance prohibiting churches within nine blocks of downtown Sanford.

Taylor said he “didn’t want Sanford to be open for business but be closed for God.” Sauls stated publicly that he sought legal counsel and suggested following through with a lawsuit had the ordinance remained. It didn’t — the council struck down the ordinance with a unanimous vote.

Which brings us back to the Dream Center — in its proposed budget to the commissioners presented in the agenda before the vote, Life Springs reveals its hope to build the center in downtown Sanford. That’s an important detail that was never brought up publicly during the discussions regarding the ordinance. The September vote now clears the way.

Even if this is a well-intended program that could help a lot of people, it’s being pushed through in a not-so-above-the-board way. The efforts to remove an ordinance had a singular endgame — charges that Sanford was “attempting to kick God out of the city’s center” were just good marketing.

It makes it hard to support something like that.

Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested the $500,000 is taxpayer funded — the funds are through the county’s American Recovery Plan COVID-related allocation.