March 6, 2014 9:45:03 AM
For the second time in less than six months, the city of Columbus is not eligible for a state grant because of errors on its part.
The city has three low income residents who could have received state funding to rehabilitate or rebuild their homes. They won't, though, because city officials failed to follow a publication guideline that disqualified its application for the HOME Investment Partnerships Program grant. The city learned of the disqualification last week.
Columbus was one of many Mississippi cities that applied for the Mississippi Development Authority grant for low income homeowners.
MDA Public Relations and Media Manager Jeff Rent said Columbus will not be considered for funding because its public notification was not published in a local newspaper within the time required in the grant's guidelines. The city was required to publish notice of the Feb. 4 public hearing no more than 20 days before the hearing date. An advertisement ran Jan. 8 in The Dispatch -- 26 days before the date.
"It's a highly competitive grant," Rent said. "We received more than $34 million in requests through the applications, but for this year there's $3.9 million. It is a standard guideline applied to every applicant. That's one of the things they check for to make sure they met all the requirements."
The application is a public document, but Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong said a public records request would be required for the public to view it.
During Tuesday's city council meeting, Federal Programs Director Travis Jones, special assistant to the director George Irby and Porter spent time with councilmen during an executive session. Afterward, three personnel matters were tabled to the next regular meeting March 18.
The Jan. 8 notice lists Columbus Mayor Robert Smith as the author, but the Office of Federal Programs handles all city grant applications.
Smith could not be reached for comment.
In order to qualify for the homeowner reconstruction program, applicants had to be determined as low-income by Housing and Urban Development, provide a copy of the deed to their homes and provide a 12-month printout of utility statements proving the structure they wanted to rehabilitate was their principal residence.
HOME grant manager Dana Jones said each city can include a minimum of three and maximum of five qualifying residences in their applications under grant guidelines.
"The number of homes submitted in a local unit of government's application is based on the decision by their board and other factors a grant writer may look at to see how competitive they can make the application as well as these must be owner-occupied, single-family dwellings with no liens on them," Dana Jones said.
Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem said the city has used this grant in recent years to help rebuild houses in Southside area and Sandfield community. Not being in the running this year for funding because of a technical error is "disappointing," he said.
"I was very excited about the grant because I've been pursuing personally this grant for better housing in Ward 5," Karriem said. "To hear that we weren't awarded because of whatever reason, it's very disheartening to me and it's a letdown to my constituents that I represent. Northside needs housing. We have a lot of blighted areas and a lot of people that are living in slum conditions that are just trying to make it."
He added that grants had become a necessity to run city government and take care of citizens who need help.
"I don't have a crystal ball to say we were definitely going to get this grant, but it sure would have felt good to know that we had skin in the game," Karriem said. "We've got to have our A game on any time we have to apply for any kind of assistance. It's not about the mayor or any of the council members. It's about the constituents we're trying to represent and being able to serve their needs."
This is the second time in the last five months that a grant application was disqualified due to a technical error. In November, the city's application for a Community Heritage Preservation Grant listed a project cost of $600,000 for building improvements promising to match $100,000 of that amount. Program guidelines require a guaranteed cash match of no less than 20 percent of the listed project amount. The $100,000 promised match was 17 percent of $600,000. Funding would have been used to renovate City Hall if it had been awarded.
That grant application also went through Jones' office. Jones was suspended for five days without pay following that disqualification.
Jones did not respond to messages seeking comment Wednesday.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.