County grant funding problems troubling
It's evident Northumberland County's planning and adult services department were overwhelmed in their effort to administer a $365,361 homelessness prevention grant provided by U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
DCED is now demanding payback of $215,150 of that money, creating a costly and embarrassing situation for the county, not to mention further fanning flames of discontent between Commissioners Rick Shoch and Vinny Clausi, who are at opposite ends of the spectrum over who to blame.
All that said, the county can't deny there is at the least the appearance of a conflict of interest in that one of the grant applicants is a brother of a planning department employee. The county may be able to prove he qualified for the money even if DCED says he didn't, but, regardless, it did not follow the detailed conflict of interest provision that requires it to seek an exception.
With the information currently available, we don't subscribe to the notion that there was anything underhanded in the relative receiving grant money, but it should have raised enough red flags for those involved to follow the conflict of interest provision to a "T" to avoid even the perception of wrong-doing.
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Meanwhile, DCED's nine-page letter detailing the county's payback said, "DCED acknowledges that this was a very complicated program to administer." That doesn't provide the county with an excuse, but we come back to the larger point of federal and state government agencies handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars to small county operations. In the case of Northumberland County, one of the departments involved, planning, is already saddled with directing what is currently the largest economic development project in the region in the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area - all this in addition to many other daily duties. The department has all of four employees.
This is the second high-profile case in a year and the third in less than a decade in which Northumberland County has experienced trouble with DCED and HUD funding. There is the homelessness grant, Point Township's well-documented mess from 2012, and the case involving Shamokin, whose leaders were told in 2012 they must pay back $504,495 to DCED and HUD tied to grant funding from 2003 through 2006.
It may be overreaction to turn down such funding in the future, but considering the track record and another six-figure payback, local government should be certain of its options, its capabilities and its needs before accepting the next grant.