SUNBURY - Northumberland County commissioners have tapped U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-11) for assistance in extending the deadline set by the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) for addressing the payback of grant money.

There was no word as of Tuesday, however, whether the congressman's involvement has had any influence on changing Thursday's deadline.

Following a meeting with the commissioners Friday, Barletta sent a brief letter to Clyde Holman, deputy secretary in the Office of Community Affairs and Development at DCED.

"As the county continues to fully examine its records and budget, I respectfully request a reasonable extension of the Feb. 7 deadline that is amenable to the county resolving this important matter," Barletta wrote in the letter, provided to The News-Item Tuesday by Barletta's communication director Tim Murtaugh.

Murtaugh said the meeting was requested by the commissioners while Barletta was visiting Sunbury. The congressman's office checked with HUD officials, who noted it was an issue between the state and county.

"Whatever assistance he can offer, he is happy to do as a representative in Congress for the area," Murtaugh said. "It is a state issue, so he can only respectfully request."

As of Tuesday afternoon, Murtaugh said an answer to the request has not been provided, and DCED did not respond to a request for comment from The News-Item.

No money yet

County planning department director Pat Mack said the county does not have to pay back the money by Thursday. The deadline represents the last day, for now, that the county can provide further information that might show recipients of the grant money were qualified despite the state's contention they weren't. The county must also provide a timeframe of how it will pay back whatever DCED determines is the amount owed in light of the new information provided in the past month.

The Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program (HPRP) was authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), and the funding was dispersed to state and local governments to keep individuals in their homes or to help individuals and families who were already homeless find affordable housing. The county received $365,361 from DCED to implement the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program, and that the county must provide documentation to support the use of $215,150 to clients deemed ineligible by DCED.

In a nine-page letter dated Jan. 7, DCED grant manager Beverly A. Hutzel detailed that the county was required to either pay back $215,150.66 or provide information proving the money was spent on eligible clients. The county had 30 days or no later than Feb. 7 to provide additional documentation.

Seeking time

County Commissioner Rick Shoch said Tuesday it is his understanding that an extension could be granted if certain requirements and stipulations are met.

"The thing we didn't have here is time. If we can some additional time on the backend, we can keep working and nipping away on those files with whatever timeframe they give us," Shoch said.

Shoch and fellow commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy said they are appreciative of Barletta's assistance nevertheless.

Clausi called Barletta a gentleman who shares his own leadership style and common sense.

"I love that man. I would do anything for that man," Clausi said.

Slowly but surely the county is knocking down the amount owed, Bridy said.

Local pols involved, too

In an interview with state Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver (R-108) two weeks ago, she said she, state Rep. Kurt Masser (R-107) and state Sen. John R. Gordner (R-27) have had many conversations concerning the DCED issue, and attended a meeting in November to determine how the situation could be rectified.

The answer was to provide the necessary information in completing each application, which the county planning department has been working toward, Culver said.

Culver was also involved in the Point Township grant discrepancy last year. However, she said, that program and criteria was completely different, and Point Township was able to provide the information DCED was looking for.

The department isn't out to punish the county, she said.

"In the end, it's all taxpayer money, and it should be spent responsibly. They (the county) is back-tracking and trying to track that information down to show it was (spent responsibly)," Culver said.

She said she is open to discussing how to change grant programs to better accommodate municipalities, but doesn't think it's a problem everywhere.

Shoch, who is also Point Township's solicitor, agreed with Culver, noting the two grants were different.

In the case of the township, Shoch said DCED required evidence that proved a developer incurred expenses to build housing units. That evidence was not included in the original files provided to DCED.

Point Township officials had to go back to the developer and request the necessary information, which was provided to DCED and satisfied the discrepancy, Shoch said.

In the case of the county, Shoch said the proper documentation needed to prove recipients of the grant money were qualified was not obtained or included in the final documentation to DCED.

Since much of the paperwork - such as eviction notices, municipal bills or lease agreements - were not originally included, Shoch said county workers must track down each of these documents, but it's been difficult because they need to locate landlords or tenants who may have moved.

Shoch said the approach of the Point Township was to visit DCED in Harrisburg and ask what they needed to close out the paperwork. If the developer refused to provide that paperwork, he said township officials were prepared to take legal action against him.

Clausi and Commissioner Stephen Bridy have been critical of DCED's oversight of the HPRP grant program, and have fought against any payback.