By Richard Sullins |

For the third consecutive meeting this winter, members of Lee County’s nonprofit community asked county commissioners for openness, transparency, and a level playing field in the processes it uses to award funds to agencies that carry out vital services in Sanford, Broadway, and beyond.

Tamara Brogan, executive director for Family Promise of Lee County, chair of the S3 Housing Connect initiative to fight against homelessness and a former school board member, made the same case Monday that others who represent local nonprofits have made to the commissioners over the past six weeks.

Since February 20, the commissioners have listened as speaker after speaker expressed unhappiness with the way a recent grant of $500,000 to a group affiliated with a local church was handled, saying the entire process of awarding the money to the Life Springs Church was tainted by mistakes and unfairness from the beginning.

That award, made to the Life Springs Action Team (LSAT) in November, was controversial from the start. The county had not advertised that funds were available, nor did it verify that LSAT had received its approval determination letter from the IRS to operate as a tax-exempt entity.

Early in January, The Rant learned that Life Springs Church Pastor Daniel Owens, who it had selected to operate the project under the name “Life Springs Dream Center” had pleaded guilty 15 months earlier to conspiracy to defraud the United States through a Medicare fraud bribery and kickback scheme. The church had not previously disclosed information about Owens’ conviction to its members, or to the county.

On the same day the information was published, Life Springs withdrew its proposal and said it would resubmit it once their IRS documentation was received. As of today, federal approval of their request for nonprofit tax status has not been granted and their hopes for a grant by the county from these federal funds will remain unresolved at least until then.

It’s the failure to advertise the opportunity to apply and allow everyone to compete for funding equally that these speakers have sought to impress on the county commissioners. Brogan said Monday they just want a fair shake.

“I’m here to advocate for a transparent process when funding is available for local nonprofits, in regard to ARPA funds or any other funds that may become available to the county. Please open the process to all county nonprofits and give clear instructions for the local agencies to apply,” she said.

Another speaker, Gabby Murillo Anderson, owns a real estate firm in Sanford and is also guardian ad litem, meaning she represents kids in the foster care system. Anderson said in a thriving community like Lee County, nonprofits play critical roles in meeting the needs of its people.

“If those organizations were suddenly not here or stopped doing what they do because they couldn’t find funding to support their mission, the work that these nonprofits are now doing would have to be picked up by the county,” she said.

That’s a compelling enough reason, Anderson said, to have an application system where the rules are known ahead of time and everyone is treated fairly.

There were others who came to the meeting with plans of speaking to the board on this same issue Monday, but they arrived after the meeting started. The commission’s rules require individuals who want to address the board sign up at least five minutes before the meeting begins.

One commissioner commented Monday about the remarks that had been made in favor of a more transparent process over the three consecutive meetings. Republican Bill Carver spoke briefly at the end of the meeting about the consistent message heard from these organizations.

“They are coming because they have questions,” he said, “and I think it would be good for us to listen to what they have to say and maybe recognize them and encourage them in general.”

Carver believes it may be possible to structure the kind of process proposed by the varied speakers, but the commissioners took no action on Monday to start the development of such a plan.

Health and Social Services departments to be consolidated

But the commissioners did vote Monday to set in motion a process that will result in the combining of the county’s Health and Social Services boards and departments on July 12. The resulting agency will be known as the Lee County Consolidated Health and Human Services Agency.

A law enacted by the state legislature 11 years ago gives counties the option of consolidating their human services agencies. During their planning retreat in late January, the commissioners decided to make the change after hearing a presentation from a representative from the UNC School of Government and a discussion that produced a consensus that such a consolidation would result in efficiencies and economies of scale.

Since then, the county manager and other staff have met with the Health and Social Services boards to explain the transition and to ask that they consider serving on the new consolidated board, as well as the nominating committee for the new department director. Membership on the this temporary nominating committee will also include representatives from the Sandhills Mental Health Board.

The Lee County Consolidated Health and Human Services Board, once it is fully constituted, will have no more than 25 directors and the final membership roster is scheduled for submission to the commissioners for their approval by June 5. The new agency director will be selected by and report to County Manager Lisa Minter.

Employees from the Health Department and the Social Services Department will no longer be subject to provisions of the State Human Resources Act and will instead by covered by the county’s personnel policies when the transition to this new agency structure becomes effective on July 12.

Food truck ordinance inches forward

A process that will establish how and where mobile food trucks can operate within the county has been underway since late last summer. As their popularity has continued grow over the past few years, the Sanford/Lee County Planning and Community Development Department reported 23 food truck operators in Sanford and one in Broadway have inquired about getting permits to operate and it was determined there were no ordinances on the books to regulate them.

That led to the development of a proposed regulation that was adopted before the end of 2022. It allows only one food truck to operate at a time on privately-owned commercial property for up to 10 consecutive days, but the Planning Board also decided to come back in a few months with a second proposed ordinance that would spell out rules for the operation of multiple food trucks within a single property area, or a “food truck park.”

It was this second proposal that came before the commissioners at their previous meeting on March 6, and Republican Commissioner Dr. Andre Knecht, also a member of the Lee County Board of Health, had a number of questions.

Knecht’s questions included whether it was good policy to go along with a proposed requirement to buy a permit that spanned a year for an event that may last only for a day or a weekend and whether language could be including that specified that it didn’t apply to events held on private property and/or in rural sections of the county.

After saying there had never been a single issue about food trucks taken to the Board of Health in the 10 years he has served, the commissioners agreed to send the measure back to the planning board to address those concerns. The Planning Board brought its retooled version back on Monday, but Knecht wanted more adjustments, asking that the term “food trucks” be changed to “business establishment” and that this proposal be combined with the earlier ordinance that was adopted last fall and that’s already on the books.

If the Planning Board is able to make these changes by the date of the next commissioners meeting scheduled for April 3 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center, it will mark the third time a public hearing has been held on the issue in the past six weeks.