Opinion: Use of how federal funds used in minority communities divides organizations, County Commission

Staff File Photo By Patrick MacCoon / Turf is projected to replace the natural grass at The Howard School's relatively new football/track stadium, shown with Lookout Mountain in the background.
Staff File Photo By Patrick MacCoon / Turf is projected to replace the natural grass at The Howard School's relatively new football/track stadium, shown with Lookout Mountain in the background.

Note: This story was updated Nov. 29 to correct the kind of machines purchased by Sankofa and criticized by County Mayor Weston Wamp.

More than $1 million given by the Hamilton County Commission to two local minority organizations more than 16 months ago but never spent is at issue.

That money, by vote of the commission two weeks ago, was reallocated to improve the athletic playing fields of two minority public high schools (The Howard School and Brainerd High School) as part of a larger plan to improve facilities at local schools.

Naturally, the two minority organizations awarded the federal money from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) are not happy with the action.

Trust us when we say there is a lot to unpack.

› When the original appropriations were made to the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga and Sankofa Civic Engagement Organization in July and August of 2022, outgoing county commissioners were divvying up a portion of the county's $71 million in federal money before a new commission could be seated in the coming weeks. Outgoing Commissioner Katherlyn Geter made both requests.

› At issue when one of the appropriations was made to the Urban League was that a budget for use of the funds had been requested but never submitted and that federal funds were to go only to organizations that serve the wider community, not what was termed in board minutes "one ethnic group." Geter subsequently said the organization served all ethnic groups. Regardless, the resolution authorizing the Urban League funds ultimately passed 8-1.

› When funds were to be appropriated to the Sankofa Fund, Geter asked the funds not be sent to the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, which houses the group's funds, but to the organization itself. Commissioners did not question the odd request but passed the resolution authorizing the funds 8-0.

› The change in funds requested two weeks ago, made by Commissioner Lee Helton, was a late addition to the commission agenda, so several commissioners rightly balked at not having enough time to examine all the issues at hand. All who spoke, however, including commissioners representing minority communities, were in favor of reappropriating the funds.

› Asked by a commissioner to be sure the original two awarded organizations had no fund requests in the pipeline, County Chief Financial Officer Lee Brouner said they did not and opined that making the change "would be clearer if we did something today."

› On Monday, representatives of the Urban League and Sankofa said they wanted their money back "immediately." In doing so, they said in a statement that the commission violated state laws that require adequate notice of public meetings and that any action taken during meetings in which there is not adequate notice are "void and of no effect." (The meeting had proper public notice, but the agenda item making the change was a late addition. However, the commission has not infrequently — but to the disdain of some commissioners — added late items.)

› The statement from the organizations said "the funds were diverted without ... discussion," but commissioners in fact had a lengthy discussion on the money and on whether the request for the change should be removed until today, and did not decide to go forward with the vote until Brouner's advice.

› The statement from the organizations also quoted federal ARP language that contained wording that any allotted funds should include COVID support for "impacted" and "disproportionately impacted" classes because of preexisting disparities. (Of course, the vast majority of all ARP money that has been allotted has had nothing whatsoever to do with the pandemic; the same is true with the Urban League and Sankofa awards, and, for that matter, the athletic fields. If it had even been tangentially COVID-related, it would have been spent already.)

› The organizations said the "schools are a great cause" but that the change had pitted organizations "against one another."

› Speaking to reporters Tuesday after a news conference announcing future turf installation at various athletic facilities, Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp said the Urban League and Sankofa weren’t “being efficient in the way they were investing in the community” and — citing office supplies, copier machines and a $25,000 glass wall — said “the community would be disappointed in how some of the funds were being used.” He said doesn’t believe the commission will give the organizations their money back.

If it were up to us:

1. We would not have allowed the commission to have the spend-off in the summer of 2022 but would have insisted each budgeted expenditure be passed on its own merit.

2. We would have asked the Urban League and Sankofa why they had not spent the ARP money, would have tried to persuade them to support the athletic fields and would have vowed to help them in impactful spending needs down the road.

3. We would put some rules in place — though emergencies cannot be foreseen — to cut down on last-minute items being placed on commission agendas. Such surprises don't respect public transparency, often make commissioners look unprepared and usually force hurried decision-making.

All that said, we believe the ARP taxpayer funds are better used for public schools than private organizations.

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