By Richard Sullins |

As the Lee County Board of Commissioners holds its first meeting of the new year Monday, on the agenda is a request from Democratic Commissioner Mark Lovick to revisit the board’s decision-making process that resulted in an award of a half-million dollars in federal COVID relief dollars to a ministry of the Life Springs Church last November.

Lovick told The Rant he has received phone calls and other communications about the process the county followed to award the funding. Lovick also wants to make sure the county followed its own guidelines so all interested organizations had an equal opportunity to bid for a share of that money.

At issue is a $500,000 grant made by the county from its allotment of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds that were designated for COVID relief. The grant was made to the Life Springs Action Team (LSAT), an incorporated arm of the church that filed articles of incorporation last summer but has yet to be approved by the IRS as an approved 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization. Its board of directors is made up solely of members from the church and its executive director is one of the church’s pastors, Rev. Daniel Owens.

County Manager Dr. John Crumpton told The Rant in December he was confident the group would gain IRS approval, but also that funds couldn’t be transferred to LSAT until those documents are received.

“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,” he said.

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

The IRS approval process with applications for 501(c)(3) status is usually four to six months if there are no issues raised. But many agencies of government are still digging out from backlogs of work that piled up during the worst months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they continue efforts to catch up because staffing remains an issue. This is particularly true at the IRS, where roughly 5,000 position vacancies remain despite repeated efforts to fill them.

Life Springs wants to use the money to create a “Dream Center” concept program in Lee County that would focus on three issues: prevention of human trafficking, providing education and therapeutic activities for persons struggling with addiction, and what it calls “community building” by reducing the number of homeless persons and helping them find employment. The Dream Center concept for supportive social services was first deployed in Los Angeles in the 1990s and has been modified for use since then in Phoenix and other cities.

The action approved by commissioners in November will provide the nonprofit with $200,000 during the first year of the project and $150,000 in each of the two succeeding years. Counties and municipalities have until December 31, 2026, to spend all of their ARPA funds or else revert them back to the Treasury Department.

Equal opportunity to apply?

Lovick wants to make sure all interested organizations had an equal opportunity to apply for the $1,550,225 in ARPA funding tentatively earmarked by commissioners in 2022 for mental health initiatives. It’s unclear whether that happened.

Crumpton suggested in November that LSAT’s proposal was of much better quality than others received. When The Rant asked for copies of those proposals not receiving funding, as well as any solicitations or advertisements for proposals issued by the county to announce guidelines for submitting applications, the county provided a short statement acknowledging the program was never advertised.

“The Commissioners began discussing the ARPA funds at the Board retreat last January and those discussions included the desire to potentially spend ARPA funds on mental health programs,” the statement read. “While the county did not formally release a request for proposals, some entities have reached out to the Board and/or staff hoping to receive some funding. Life Springs Action Team submitted a formal proposal, and that proposal was attached to the board’s agenda.”

How the Life Springs Action Team and handful of other nonprofit associations heard these unadvertised funds were available through the county for mental health services and submitted proposals for them is a question that remains unanswered, and a larger group of similar organizations only heard about the money after commissioners had awarded $500,000 to LSAT.

As a result, some churches and organizations that also provide mental health services are unhappy they didn’t have a chance to pitch their own programs and explain how they might be enhanced by significant infusions of cash.

Re-examination of LSAT proposal uncertain

Even as Lovick’s request gets a hearing on Monday, there’s still no clear signal that a majority of the commissioners have an appetite for taking another look.

The 12-page document is lacking in several elements usually seen in winning proposals. There are no milestones to be accomplished during the three year lifespan of the project, and no timeline under which they are proposed to be achieved.

The proposal is almost completely devoid of performance metrics. Performance metrics provide the means by which the effectiveness of spending grant dollars can be measured.

The proposal makes no claim that LSAT has licensed counselors on staff to handle the needs of those it encounters and proposes to rely on making referrals to other “community partners” who regularly provide such services through counselors and credentialed personnel on their payrolls. LSAT makes no effort to justify its need of this “middleman” approach to case management. Most glaring of all, perhaps, is its failure to make a case for why their programs are superior to those others that also exist in the county.

These are the sort of issues that the three Democratic members of the commission wanted to consider when they voted November 14 to delay considering the proposal. Veteran Commissioner Robert Reives Sr., a Democrat, said that evening “I would take the position that this was very quick, in my opinion. We had other requests from other nonprofits that we have capped the amount of funding that they would be eligible for.”

Board Chairman Kirk Smith, a Republican, maintained the cap only applied to allocations from the county’s general fund, and Crumpton noted the board had earlier in the meeting made an award of $315,000 to Outreach Mission Inc. Still others, including one from the Salvation Army, had been denied.

Reives offered a motion to table the item until December so commissioners could have more time to study the request and hear from the public. Republican Commissioner Bill Carver objected, saying “this is such a clear contribution to what the county needs to be able to do to meet the crises that (LSAT) are finding in the populations that they are addressing,” but gave no discernable reason for bypassing the Crumpton’s recommendation to give time for study.

Former Republican Commissioner Arianna Lavallee, who left the board after not seeking re-election in 2022, said in her judgment, the proposal was exactly what was needed.

“I’m not sure what giving it more study time would do. I’m in favor of voting on it now,” she said in November.

On a party-line vote that month, four Republicans voted to ignore Crumpton’s recommendation and allocate the funds, with three Democrats in favor of studying the proposal before voting.

When the final vote was taken that night, only Reives remained in opposition to funding the proposal. It passed 6-1.

The commissioners meet 6 p.m. Monday at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center on Nash Street.