After months of waiting, there’s still no indication when the Asbestos Resource Program’s federal grant will be taken off temporary hold.
Their existing grant, the grant that was set to expire at the end of 2016, was put on temporary hold back in Sept., 2016, after the Environmental Protection Agency evaluated the legality of past grant spending.
The evaluation initially began in May, when Lincoln County commissioners asked the federal agency for guidance after discovering R. Allen Payne and his legal firm, Doney Crowley Bloomquist Payne UDA, had received payments from the grant funds, which were found to be against federal grant funding regulations.
The EPA is still evaluating the grant and those expenditures, and as of now, there’s no indication of when the evaluation will be done, ARP manager Nick Raines said.
Before the temporary hold, the ARP was operating under excess funds, but now it’s operating under how the grant was originally supposed to be used — as a reimbursable grant. Raines told the Commissioners last week that they are now utilizing county funds, but they are basically operating now on a negative cash balance with the intention of requesting reimbursement.
“The EPA has indicated that once the evaluation is done, there is a clear process for being reimbursed for all allowable expenses that are still incurred,” Raines told the commissioners. “Even though there is a hold on reimbursement right now, the EPA said that once the evaluation is done, they will be given reimbursement.”
A cash balance and budget are two different things. While they are not over budget, they are operating contingent that everything is going to work out and they’re going to be reimbursed.
While the grant was set to expire at the end of December, the EPA, Raines said, are very excited to set up a new cooperative agreement.
“They want to see the Asbestos Resource Program continue to operate and provide all the resources that we have been providing,” Raines said.
Raines said that he’s been working closely with the EPA on that new cooperative agreement. The one challenge, he said, is the timing of it with the agreement’s expiration date at the end of December, negotiations, in addition to people being on holiday vacation. In light of the concern that the grant might not be approved in time to start at the end of the existing grant, the EPA granted an extension on the period performance for the existing grant to the end of January.
So, the ARP have a couple more weeks to finish up negotiations, get the application in and have the grant be awarded. As of Wednesday morning, Raines said, the EPA indicated that there is still enough time to get all of the paperwork pushed through the system and get approved.
“They’re very happy with what we’re doing, so much so that they’ve asked to do things a little bit different,” Raines said.
One of the things that held up the new grant application is that Raines originally submitted a budget for their one-year grant and the EPA came back and told Raines that they like it all, but they said that they’d like to fund the ARP for a three-year period. So, they asked for Raines to resubmit the application for Feb. 2017 to the end of 2019.
RAINES THEN ADDRESSED the operational maintenance discussion, or what the county will look like once the EPA is done.
“I think he has some very high hopes on how that process is going to go,” Raines said. “However, I could sense the frustration from all of you (the county commissioners) on how slow this process has been. One of our biggest challenges… is that there’s a very unique relationship right now between the EPA, state of Montana and the County/Board of Health.
As a strange relationship, Raines said, it’s difficult to communicate with all parties. Raines also noted that he felt there is some intention to exclude the county and the board of health from some of the ongoing discussion.
“I don’t want to put all the blame on the state, but it does seem like there is some resistance to exclude us from those discussions,” Raines said. “I completely understand that the state and the EPA need to have their own meetings, come to some decisions, come up with some plans — all we can continue to ask from the county and the board of health perspective is that there aren’t any concrete decisions made that are not voiced upon.”