By Richard Sullins |

As Lee County Commissioners gathered Monday to celebrate Dr. John Crumpton’s retirement as county manager, seven people representing long-established nonprofits spoke during public comment to express a single message voiced by John Paschal of Bread of Life Ministries: “When you come up with your processes for public funding, we’d like to be invited.”

The sentiment is shared by a number of nonprofits and church organizations after an attempt in late 2022 to fund a fledgling project championed by a group affiliated with Life Springs Church of Sanford.

Paschal was referring to $1.5 million in federal COVID relief dollars held in reserve by the commissioners for addressing mental health, addiction, human trafficking, homelessness, and other concerns that worsened during the pandemic.

These seven people represented four organizations that have worked for years with the homeless, the hungry, those without medical care, and those struggling with addictions. In addition to Bread of Life Ministries, the others included Outreach Mission, Inc., the S3 Housing Connect, and its affiliated partner, H3 Street Medicine.

This group came as a block to make clear distinctions between their missions and that of the Life Springs Action Team’s (LSAT) Dream Center, whom the commissioners had awarded half a million dollars to in November to carry out a menu of services to address a full spectrum of needs within the county. The funding has since been put on hold.

As they spoke from the podium, the differences this group of seven sought to draw between themselves and LSAT were clear: their organizations have been operating for decades, they already have the requisite federal and state approvals required to make use of government-based funding, they are plugged in to existing networks that give them access to professionals from coast to coast, and they have credentialed staff members already working and systems in place to protect patient confidentiality required by HIPAA and other federal statutes.

Paschal said Bread of Life Ministries received its federal nonprofit designation in 2012, as well as it solicitation license from the state. They have been operating for years from space in the old McIver School building shared with its partner, the Salvation Army of Lee County’s Navigation Center.

But limitations forced on them by insufficient funding prevents doing the second mile. That includes helping young people find constructive ways to spend their spare time, and helping families avoid the downward spiral of homelessness.

The other speakers told similar stories about successes they can point to, but most spent their allotted three minutes at the microphone to talk about the county’s unmet needs, how they will grow exponentially as the population continues to boom, and how there is precious little time for a learning curve that will figure out how best to do what must be done.

Cindy Hall, who works with the H3 Street Medicine program, said her group received a call from an attorney earlier in the day who said he’d found a couple in their 60s that were living out of their car because they had become homeless.

Gabrielle Saunders, a veterans advocate and supporter of S3, told a similar story of a homeless female veteran who was found living in a section of woods in Lee County. Saunders was able to assist this vet in getting help, but the fact that the county reported at least 159 homeless persons in a recent snapshot count shows the extent of the problem and the need for a coordinated response.

Without exception, each of the seven who took turns at the podium Monday night spoke of the need for this sort of a seamless response to homelessness and other issues, one that will promote the understanding that a community’s well-being becomes stronger when it works together. Laura Spivey, Executive Director of Outreach Missions, related an African proverb that teaches, “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, take someone with you.”

Commission discusses funding limits

As the comment period ended, Democratic Commissioner Cameron Sharpe asked if the commissioners had previously agreed on a monetary limit to contributions the county might make to nonprofit organizations.

The question was an important one. Some had contended that this was not a contribution, but rather a grant. Others, including Republican Commission Chairman Kirk Smith, believed since the dollars in question were received from the federal government and were not from taxes paid by Lee County residents, the rules on limiting the amount of funds that could be allocated did not apply in the Life Springs case.

In one of his final duties as County Manager, Crumpton explained that the county commissioners had placed a cap of $50,000 several years ago on contributions to nonprofit groups. During planning for the 2022-23 fiscal year, they increased that amount to $73,500 and agreed that they would only consider proposals from groups they had previously funded.

They also reserved $1.5 million of those same federal COVID dollars for mental health issues. As rules on how that money could be spent became clearer in 2021 and 2022, the commissioners decided, according to Crumpton, they would take proposals from nonprofit groups in the county as they came in and that the limits they had established for contributions made to nonprofits from county funds would not apply to this grouping of federal dollars, known as the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

The county used ARPA funding to provide $850,000 to Brick Capital Community Development Corporation to help fund public infrastructure improvements at the Washington Avenue housing project, and another $315,000 in construction funds to help build a new homeless shelter to be operated by Outreach Mission. These two allocations were made before commissioners considered the Life Springs proposal.

The funding these groups hope to be considered for comes from this same line item, the one commissioners used in November when they awarded $500,000 to the Life Springs Action Team. But at the time, LSAT did not disclose to the commissioners that it did not have its nonprofit determination letter from the IRS that officially made them an approved nonprofit organization.

After this was discovered, the group withdrew its proposal for funding and requested permission to resubmit once the IRS documentation was received. The county had failed to ask for the IRS document before the November vote.

A month later, The Rant broke a related story of how the Life Springs pastor designated to run the Dream Center project, Daniel Owens, had been convicted of federal conspiracy charges as part of a multi-state scheme to defraud the federal Medicare program of $184,000 by filing false claims for phony medical services. Owens’ sentence includes a requirement that he pay back the kickbacks and bribes he received in payments of at least $400 per month, a requirement that will take more than 38 years to complete.

Two of the groups represented at Monday’s meeting, Outreach Ministries and the Bread of Life Ministries, told The Rant they hope to take advantage of any opportunities to apply for county funding, if they are made available. All that is needed is for the commissioners to give the green light for the application period to start.

But there is more that went unsaid Monday night, and it’s something that has been on the lips of people involved with nonprofits and religious-affiliated groups across the county since Life Springs was awarded funding: That the decision to fund the Life Springs proposal, on the same night it was presented, and over Crumpton’s recommendation the board take time to think it over, felt like a slap in the face.

The commission had not advertised to any nonprofit or religious-affiliated groups that funds were available and that has raised unanswered questions as to how Life Springs knew that hundreds of thousands of dollars were available and why they seemed to be the only group to submit a proposal.

The Life Springs Action Team is said to be planning to resubmit their original proposal to the commissioners once the IRS determination letter is received. The commission’s three Democrats – Sharpe, Robert Reives, Sr., and Mark Lovick – have said publicly they would vote against such a proposal if it comes. Republicans who would talk with us on the record aren’t saying how they will vote.