By Richard Sullins |

A $500,000 grant made by Lee County’s Board of Commissioners on November 14 to an organization affiliated with a local church will be delayed for an unknown length of time because the group – the Life Springs Action Team, Inc. – has not yet been approved by the IRS as a tax-exempt entity.

Lee County Manager Dr. John Crumpton told The Rant after Monday afternoon’s meeting of the commissioners that “it could be a matter of a few weeks or a few months. Nothing can happen until that is approved. But once it does happen, we will come back to the commissioners and seek their approval of a contractual agreement.”

Commissioners had been set to vote on a contract for the grant money at Monday’s meeting. That vote did not take place.

An IRS designation as an approved 501(c)(3) entity allows an organization to be exempt from payment of corporate taxes. But more importantly, it qualifies the group as a charity that makes it eligible to apply for, and receive, grants and to declare that contributions it receives are tax deductible by the donor, with some restrictions.

The IRS typically approves applications for 501(c)(3) status within a four to six month period. But most agencies of government are still recovering from backlogs of work that piled up during the COVID-19 pandemic and are still awaiting processing because staffing remains an issue in many departments.

The award made by the commissioners is a part of the county’s $12 million allotment from COVID relief dollars that were authorized by Congress, signed into law by the president, and paid from taxpayer funds held in trust by the U.S. Treasury. County commissioners have been making use of these very same COVID dollars to address critical issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

Mental illness was determined to be one of the critical challenges facing Lee County as the community and the local economy continue to recover, and the commissioners had set aside $1.5 million to address mental and emotional concerns. The $500,000 award by the commissioners for the Life Springs Dream Center represents about one-third of the amount they had reserved for mental health issues.

Commission’s cash leaves project still $834,000 short

It was just 15 days after their success with the county that Life Springs Pastor Rev. Dale Sauls and Rev. Daniel Owens, also a pastor at Life Springs and the director of the Dream Center project, moved on to another unit of Lee County government: the Sanford City Council.

The council had a handful of items to discuss in closed session as they met for a special-called workshop meeting on November 29, but the only open session item on the agenda was to “consider an update from Life Springs Church.” When it came their time to speak, the two pastors said that they had not come to ask for money, but Sauls added that “we’re at a stage where we feel like for us to do this on the level that has been done in other communities, and now since the separate 501(c)(3), we’ve never asked for the community to fund it. It’s all been funded by Life Springs Church.”

“We’re at a place now where we’re gonna need help to really go with the level of excellence and do the things that we have the vision to do,” he continued. “None of that goes back to the church at all. It is simply to be able to help the community, and so we’re just wanting you guys to be in the loop as we figure it out. And if you think it would be a blessing, if you think we could serve, if you think we could do that, then help us take it to the next level.”

The 12-page proposal the Life Springs Action Team submitted to the county estimates their budget for implementing the project over the next three years will cost approximately $1,334,400. The award of $500,000 from the county represents about 37 percent of that amount, leaving Life Springs with the need to raise another $834,400 (or 63 percent) before the Dream Center project can be fully funded.

Like the county, the city also received COVID relief dollars, as well as others that are being allocated from the multi-state opioid settlement. And again, just like the county, the city identified mental health and drug abuse concerns as being near the top of its list of priorities to be addressed through these allotments that come along once or twice in a generation.

The biggest-ticket item in Life Springs’ proposed budget is $800,000 for a building to house the program. The budget detail doesn’t specify whether this would be a purchase or a rental of an existing facility, but it does contain one interesting bit of information – that they “would like to be located in Downtown Sanford.”

That’s important, because were it not for the efforts of Pastor Sauls, the ordinance adopted in 1999 that prohibited religious complexes from locating in the central business district of downtown would also have barred an organization like the Dream Center.

Getting that law removed from the city’s book of ordinances this past October opened the door to make this project legally eligible to be located somewhere in the nine blocks that make up the central business district. And if an organization had $800,000 in cash ready to either lease a facility or purchase it outright, it would surely have no competitors for the space.

The county cannot write a check to the Life Springs Action Team for the $500,000 it has promised until the IRS gives final approval to their application for approval as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. That could come in a matter of days, or it could take months.