Review raises more red flags in Jax City Council’s COVID grant list
COMMENT | Jacksonville City Council members have used their nearly unlimited discretion to distribute more than $ 6 million in COVID-19 relief grants this summer to a mishmash of not-for-profits and well-known good causes, as well as more obscure organizations whose only qualification was a connection to a city politician – a process that undermined the potential public good of the program and left some groups in need left behind.
A closer look at the nearly 100 grant recipients, city and company records, IRS records, and court documents raises a number of red flags beyond previous reports on some of the winners. selected by the members of the municipal council.
On September 24, for example, state officials administratively dissolved a non-profit organization – The Posh Factory Performing Arts Center Inc. – which was authorized to receive a $ 25,000 grant from the chairman of the city council, Sam Newby. An organization facing such a dissolution typically cannot do business in Florida without at least filing updated corporate documents.
See the list:Jacksonville City Council members had $ 6.5 million in COVID-19 relief to provide to outside groups. Where is he going ?
Following:Nate Monroe: Influence, not need, determined where city council sent millions of COVID-19 relief money
Although most of the money went to nonprofits, board members seemed to be aware that they had few constraints. According to city records, city council member Al Ferraro asked if he could send money to an unnamed tire store; he never followed up with Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration after that initial investigation or put him on his beneficiary list.
But at least five grants appear to have gone to for-profit companies, three of which were awarded by city council member Ju’Coby Pittman, who, as CEO of the Clara White mission, presented herself as a champion. good causes on the Board. One of those groups is a barbecue restaurant, Holley’s Bar ‐ B ‐ Que Inc; another, H. Trent Elson Underground Sprinkler Inc., came out of bankruptcy last year. The company’s financial problems, according to court filings, were at least in part due to the IRS owing tens of thousands of dollars.
The $ 6 million came from a slice of more than $ 141 million of US federal bailout money sent to city hall to plug the holes created by the pandemic. Part of the Town Hall spending plan was to provide council members with a slice of that money in two jars: a first batch of $ 1.9 million and a second batch of $ 4.6 million, all distributed equally among the members of the board.
The idea to provide this handbag came from the town hall.
“They have indicated to the administration that they prefer there to be an allocation of money for nonprofits, churches and other industries that the council considers appropriate,” Jordan Elsbury told me. , Curry’s chief of staff.
By design, the council had few restrictions in deciding how to allocate its share of the money, a major departure from the normal course of business in the city: granting grants through managed competitive processes. by professionals run by the Kids Hope Alliance, the Cultural Council or the city’s public service grant program.
The result has been a messy combination of established nonprofits and lesser-known groups that do not reflect any cohesive vision except for connections to those in power. Several organizations received multiple grants from board members, who couldn’t talk to each other about their selections due to the state’s Sunshine Law, meaning some winners disproportionately benefited from it, while other causes praiseworthy have been left out entirely.
Some nonprofits rushed to pressure a board member for inclusion and found the task simply impossible. Many groups had no idea that these opportunities were available.
One notable absence: No board member has donated money to Feeding Northeast Florida, the region’s best-known anti-hunger group.
“… the Board will potentially approve over $ 7 million in grants that have no metrics, no demonstration of need, no verification of recipient organizations, and no accountability process for how funds are used,” Nina Waters, president of The Community Foundation, said Thursday in a letter to the editor of The Times-Union.
“This is neither a good subsidy nor good management of public money.”
Money from the US bailout can be used to support small businesses, so there may be no legal issues with board members offering financial giveaways to for-profit companies. But generally, financial support for businesses in the COVID era has taken shape in various loan programs, some of which may be forgivable if those businesses spend the money according to a defined set of rules and based on the financial documents that these businesses. must provide. The city implemented such a loan program last year.
Lollipop board members who distribute do not have such rules attached.
The handful of for-profit companies securing loans, ranging from $ 25,000 to, in one case, $ 121,000, do not reflect any broader strategy to help Jacksonville small businesses, and the opportunities to land bailouts do ‘have not been announced, which makes the process inherently arbitrary. and unfair.
In fact, the biggest grant doesn’t go to a Jacksonville-based company at all: $ 121,000 from board member Michael Boylan goes to a publishing house, Havana Publishing, in Gadsen County, at over 280 kilometers west of the city. The company publishes a neighborhood-specific newsletter in Mandarin which Boylan told me, for last Sunday’s column, he thinks he is providing a valuable public service, although he admitted that it “was not. not perfect “for a COVID-19 grant.
He wasn’t the only for-profit winner of a council grant.
Newby, the chairman of the board, gave $ 25,000 to Gown and Garter Inc., a company that designs wedding dresses. Board member Joyce Morgan donated $ 25,000 to Soulfitness Studio, a wellness center and juice bar.
Some nonprofits also raise eyebrows. Gaffney, I reported last week, wants to donate $ 121,000 to a group called The Church International Inc., whose company executives donated $ 1,000 to his State Senate campaign last month. . Two of these same people are also at the origin of another non-profit organization. Gaffney has provided $ 25,000 to: never a budget of $ 513 million this year.
Icare Inc., another $ 25,000 Gaffney nonprofit, is based in Orange Park in neighboring Clay County. IRS records indicate that the group’s annual budget does not exceed $ 50,000, which means Gaffney’s grant represents at least half of his annual income.
It’s similar to another Orange Park-based nonprofit on the list, Summit Vision Foundation Inc., which has little public visibility and a budget of no more than $ 50,000. But Gaffney wants to provide Summit with $ 121,000.
These problems materialized in a simple basic search among the dozens of grant recipients, so it’s tempting to believe that there are more. And there are plenty of other substantive reasons for finding the Global Grant List troubling: The money has gone to churches, private schools, sports leagues – causes that may be important to some people but should be subordinated to them. many credible nonprofits on the front line, unless doing the most good for most people was the goal.
The board approved the list of grants of $ 1.9 million, most of which totaled $ 25,000, last month. Members are expected to approve the remaining $ 4.6 million on Tuesday.
The board has also already approved $ 800,000 in a combination of COVID relief money and local tax money for four nonprofits run by its own members: $ 500,000 at the community rehabilitation center run by Gaffney ; $ 100,000 to Clara White, of which Pittman is CEO; $ 100,000 to Read USA, led by Terrance Freeman, Board member; and $ 100,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Northeast Florida, where Kevin Carrico, a board member, is vice president of operations. These members got that money while bypassing both the city’s routine competitive grant-making process and the council-led opaque process for the $ 6.5 million that left many groups dry. .
Many worthy cases will benefit from decisions made by board members, making it difficult to review the process on Tuesday and potentially unravel cases of good work and good intentions. But there is a need for them to grapple with the self-discrediting they have made for themselves and wonder if they will accept this failure of vision, planning, and purpose: for employers of their own colleagues along the way.
If the past is a prologue, however, they’ll opt for awkward silence.
To view a list of all recipients approved and still under review for the $ 6.5 million funding, visit jacksonville.com.
Nate Monroe’s City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.