BY WILLIAM ROLLER
The Board of supervisors at its Jan. 23 meeting approved revisions to the Community Benefit Program as recommended by County Chief Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas Jr.
The board voted 4-0 to approve item 16A.Chairman and District 5 Supervisor Ray Castillo was absent.
The action lifts a 90-day moratorium enacted in July on acceptance of applications for both the Agricultural and Community Benefits Programs. It had been extended and scheduled to expire Jan. 23, noted District 1 Supervisor John Renison. Lifting the moratorium will enable the board to receive 16 requests that were placed on hold. It will also enable the board to receive new requests from community groups and organizations, he added.
The programs stem from a fee paid to the county by solar projects. It was approved by the board some years ago with to offset economic losses from converting labor-heavy farm ground to solar fields that employ relatively few following their construction.
“There is around $1 million currently in the Community Benefit Program and within the next two years there will be additional funds available due to two major solar projects in the Calexico area that will pay into the fund beginning later this year,” said Renison.
He also pointed out prequalification of new applications will enable the county to address any lack of information omitted from an initial application.
“Grant seekers will be required to attend mandatory meetings to properly address any lack of information,” Renison said. “Public-benefit funds are meant to augment programs that are needed but not adequately funded, i.e. senior nutrition, sports and library programs. The new guidelines will enable a streamlined process that is sure to fast track requests for qualified groups.”
The board appointed an ad hoc committee comprised of Supervisors Luis Plancarte of district 2 and Castillo to address concerns about programs. At the request of the Agricultural Benefit Advisory Committee, it makes revisions to the Agricultural Benefit Loan and Grant Program documents, and the Academic Scholarship Program.
Revisions include changes to loan documents, requests for proposal, application and check lists, as well as separation and creation of the same documents intended for grant proposals. The scholarship program recommended funding up to $75,000 a year with a $3,000 cap per student on an academic-year basis.
The benefit program was set up by the board to increase the number of agricultural jobs, and improve the local economy by improving agricultural production. Agricultural Benefits Funds can be applied to one or more of these target areas: development of an agricultural-commodity processing plant, development of beneficial new crops or technology, and bringing abandoned or neglected farm ground back into production.
Some application-selection criteria include weighing the capabilities and financial security of the organizations conducting a project. Also considered is how many net new direct and indirect jobs it will create. Preference is given to projects in Imperial County. Projects with a high percentage of other sources of funding will be given preference.
The board also passed item 16B, 4 to 0, to amend the by-laws of the Community Benefits Program, adding a conflict-of-interest provision, as well as revisions to program guidelines and application forms. The process begins with submitting a letter of intent followed by review within 30 days, which is then approved or denied.
If approved, attendance to a pre-application workshop is required. Next, there is a submittal of a full grant application. This is then evaluated, and the application is recommended or denied. The board of supervisors will review and approve or decline the application.
Plancarte noted he has received more inquiries about this topic than any other issue in his one year on the board. Some relay to the board why a project should receive support without going through the application process, assuming going directly to a supervisor with a phone call improves the chances of a project’s acceptance, he noted.
But Plancarte cautioned any project hopefuls about contacting a supervisor since the board must impartially judge the value of each proposal based on the prescribed criteria and such action could disqualify an otherwise worthy project.
The board also passed item 16C, 4-0, regarding time extensions and terminations for Round One Community Benefit Program grants. Up to now, seven grants have been completed. Five grants have not met requirements and are recommended for termination. Meanwhile, 12 grants have been delayed and recommended for extensions to complete projects.