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Making the Grade: Proposal would reassess citizen grant applications

Removal of concrete supports continues at the demolition site of 615-619 Putnam St., in Marietta Wednesday, the project is to be paid for in part by 2020 Community Development Block Grant funds, after citizen requests in 2019 increased the priority level to tear down the blighted strip mall structure. (Photo by Janelle Patterson)

An equal grading scale that weighs private resident participation above those with greater access to decision-makers will not be on today’s legislation agenda before Marietta City Council.

“I have questions about it legally… If the HUD representative says, when I send it to him, that this is a proper way to measure, then I will put that on the docket for Sept. 3,” said Marietta Law Director Paul Bertram Wednesday. “If there’s not an issue, then I will put it through. I have to look at HUD regulations. … If it is a proper avenue I will put it forward.”

Bertram said before he writes the ordinance which, if passed, could standardize and clarify the metrics by which the federal funds are to be distributed within the city, he must consult with the city’s new U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development representative this week.

The proposal from Planning, Zoning, Annexation and Housing Committee Chairman Geoff Schenkel was submitted for legislation on Aug. 13, during a combined PZAH Committee meeting with Finance Committee.

A written record of the proposal was provided to the Times by Schenkel and outlines the purposes of the grading matrix to provide a “transparent grading scale” in contrast with inconsistent or non responsive participation by the present city development director Mike Gulliver.

This proposed grading matrix is provided by Councilman Geoff Schenkel with color coding and Activity Abbreviation Key added by Times Reporter Janelle Patterson in consultation with Schenkel to share his identified source documents for the four levels of benefit point values.

“It does not appear that you are arriving at recommendations that are based on consistent evaluation,” Schenkel wrote concerning Gulliver’s recommended funding spreadsheet for fiscal year 2021 CDBG funds, in the proposal. He furnished copies to members of council and the administration Aug. 13. The proposal endeavors to incentivize greater citizen participation within the CDBG request process while encouraging detailed deliverables within the activity request.

“That way it doesn’t have to just be the quantity of requests either to get ahead, it has to focus on the quality, the density of benefit,” he explained Thursday.

Schenkel’s proposal splits the grading matrix down into a point system assigned by requiring a declaration of position and by meeting qualifying criteria to meet the objectives, best practices and commitments the city operates under the direction of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — which funds the CDBG program annually.

The “Benefit Density Index” he proposed assigns additional point values to projects, which can prove their deliverable activities qualify under more than the minimum standard.

“This way it’s not interpretation, it’s math,” said Schenkel.

In his breakdown of the proposed cumulative benefit point assignment, a project must at least meet one national objective of HUD to achieve its first four points.

Then, a minimum benefit threshold a project must meet is five points, totally qualifying legally to be entered in the federal agency’s CDBG matrix code.

Projects, he explained this week, which meet more than one national objective, or additionally qualify within best practices outlined by HUD, or within the current 2018-2020 consolidated plan approved by HUD as an element of the city strategy for CDBG funding, can then accumulate more points above the 5-point minimum benefit value.

Then the final assignment per request looks to who is asking for the funds.

The proposal assigns greatest participation value to a private Marietta resident who is not:

-Only a business owner in a low-to-moderate income area.

-A non-resident volunteer working within a low-to-moderate income area.

-A nonprofit employee or board member working for the benefit of an LMI area or within the Central Business District.

-An outside social service agency representative or official.

-A city employee, contractor, elected official, appointed official or a family member of the same.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Safety-Service Director Steve Wetz Monday, after reviewing the proposal.

Wetz also noted Monday that the missing 21-23 documents indicated in Times’ follow-up public records request have not yet been found by his employee, Gulliver, and expressed disappointment with the inability to complete the public records request, questioning whether the documents even exist.

Included in that missing list per the tally provided by Gulliver to Council and the Times are:

-All eight request forms for the Civil War Roundtable to fund three historic markers.

-Three forms of the five tallied for requests for the Historic Harmar Bridge.

-Two additional forms of the three tallied for requests concerning stairs for Buckeye Park.

-Four additional forms concerning requests for ADA curb ramp installation at the intersection of Ninth and Washington streets allegedly written by city employees/appointed or elected administration.

-Three forms allegedly submitted by city employees/appointed administration concerning the city ADA transition plan.

-One form allegedly submitted by a city employee supporting the request to fund Marietta Main Street.

-One form allegedly submitted by a citizen concerning River Trail Phase V.

Meanwhile, Councilman Bill Gossett on Wednesday walked through Fiscal Year 2021 requests with the Times and endeavored to use the proposed new grading rubric to determine likely point values of seven of the 35 separate project proposals.

The 35 separate projects were tallied between citizen copies of what they turned in as ideas for projects and the copies furnished through public records requested by the Times from the development office.

Gossett selected seven projects (representing 20 percent of the project ideas submitted) for exercise comparison.

Through that exercise the following point determinations were found:

1. Acquisition and demolition of 115-117 Gilman Ave; requested by 37 city residents, one nonprofit representative and one business owner impacted in the low-income area: 98 cumulative points.

Benefit index criteria met in each request: National Objectives (12 points); Best Practices (3); HUD-approved element in the current city strategy contained within Marietta’s 2018-2020 consolidated plan (2); Minimum index (1).

That benefit index is then multiplied by the number of participants (37, plus two half-point participants).

Then the cumulative total of participation point value is added to reach the total 98-point score.

2. Wheelchair lift for the Peoples Bank Theatre stage access; requested by two employees of the nonprofit and five board members: 59.5 cumulative points.

Benefit index criteria met in each request: National Objectives (4 points); Best Practices (3); HUD-approved element in the current city strategy contained within Marietta’s 2018-2020 consolidated plan (0); Minimum index (1).

That benefit index is then multiplied by the number of participants (seven half-point participants).

Then the cumulative total of participation point value is added to reach the total 59.5-point score.

3. ADA curb ramp installation at the intersection of Ninth and Washington streets; requested by eight residents: 48 cumulative points.

Benefit index criteria met in each request: National Objectives (4 points); Best Practices (0); HUD-approved element in the current city strategy contained within Marietta’s 2018-2020 consolidated plan (0); Minimum index (1).

That benefit index is then multiplied by the number of participants (eight full-point participants).

Then the cumulative total of participation point value is added to reach the total 48-point score.

4. Community Action Bus Line; requested by two Washington County Commissioners on behalf of Washington-Morgan Community Action: 21 cumulative points.

Benefit index criteria met in each request: National Objectives (12 points); Best Practices (3); HUD-approved element in the current city strategy contained within Marietta’s 2018-2020 consolidated plan (4); Minimum index (1).

That benefit index is then multiplied by the number of participants (two half-point participants).

Then the cumulative total of participation point value is added to reach the total 21-point score.

5. River Trail lights; requested by Councilman Mike Scales: 15.5 cumulative points.

Benefit index criteria met in each request: National Objectives (8 points); Best Practices (6); HUD-approved element in the current city strategy contained within Marietta’s 2018-2020 consolidated plan (0); Minimum index (1).

That benefit index is then multiplied by the number of participants (one half-point participant).

Then the cumulative total of participation point value is added to reach the total 15.5-point score.

6. Marietta Main Street; requested by the nonprofit’s executive director: 13.5 cumulative points.

Benefit index criteria met in each request: National Objectives (4 points); Best Practices (6); HUD-approved element in the current city strategy contained within Marietta’s 2018-2020 consolidated plan (2); Minimum index (1).

That benefit index is then multiplied by the number of participants (one half-point participant).

Then the cumulative total of participation point value is added to reach the total 13.5-point score.

7. Marietta Aquatic Center; requested by the city public facilities clerk and by the contracted pool management company owner: 12 cumulative points.

Benefit index criteria met in each request: National Objectives (8 points); Best Practices (0); HUD-approved element in the current city strategy contained within Marietta’s 2018-2020 consolidated plan (2); Minimum index (1).

That benefit index is then multiplied by the number of participants (two half-point participants).

Then the cumulative total of participation point value is added to reach the total 12-point score.

Note: The proposed minimum standard for eligibility for funding is a cumulative total of 5.5 points. And, projects not funded in a specific CDBG fiscal year cycle are not automatically ineligible for other city project funding.

After completing the above exercise, Gossett said that Schenkel’s proposal provides a more clear and accessible understanding of distribution of the federal tax dollars.

“And it gives the people the most merit, instead of penalizing them for not knowing specific Davis-Bacon wages or the going rates for concrete,” Gossett said. “It values their needs at a higher rate than the bureaucratic professional’s wants.”

Gossett also noted that by walking through the grading matrix proposed, he could better teach and aid his own ward residents (Third Ward) in advocating for themselves and their neighborhood needs in the future.

“I intend to have this ordinance passed before we consider the recommendations (Gulliver has) made and to regrade the requests based on that transparent grading scale since you have proven incapable of providing that fair, clear and consistent line of measure for the past nine months that we have been requesting your participation,” wrote Schenkel in his proposal justification last week.

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