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Seeks to channel money to county’s Vision program

By ERICA MITRANO

Staff writer

Charles County commissioners should retake some control of county government’s charitable contributions from a committee established to review grant applications from local nonprofits, Commissioner Debra M. Davis (D) suggested last week, prompting colleagues to express concern about circumventing existing procedures.

During the commissioners’ Nov. 7 meeting, Davis also proposed channeling money specifically to groups that might advance goals of the Charles County Vision 2020 pilot program, an anti-poverty program that she helped launch last year.

The discussion was launched by a request from New Horizons Supported Services, an employment training nonprofit for the developmentally disabled, to appear on the commissioners’ agenda.

Davis supported meeting with representatives of the Upper Marlboro-based organization, while some of her colleagues proposed asking New Horizons to work with county staff first, the procedure suggested to other local groups.

“I’d like to hear from them. When do I get to hear from them? I don’t want any staff deciding what I get to do,” Davis said.

“That’s where I disagree with you, Commissioner Davis,” Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said.

“Let’s get some order here,” said commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D), curbing the exchange. She expressed concerns about the consequences of accepting appeals directly from specific groups.

“If we begin down this road — I’m fine with doing that — I think we all need to understand we need to open our agenda to every single nonprofit. Because every one of them believes they have something important to offer,” Kelly said.

Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) also worried about the implications of commissioners’ direct involvement in grant awards. He moved to table New Horizons’ request and refer the charity to county staff, which was unanimously approved by the board.

“Consistency is extremely important and because, on a regular basis, I hear from smaller nonprofits questioning, wondering why they did not receive funding from the county etc., I certainly understand your concern. … I was thinking a compromise would be still allowing them a forum, an opportunity to talk directly to one of the member agencies to describe what their services are,” Collins said.

The Charles County Grant Advisory Panel advertises its annual grant allocation process as widely as possible so that nonprofits know to participate, said committee Chairman Earle Knapp. The committee, which makes an annual recommendation to the commissioners about county funding of nonprofits, has proposed a January deadline to apply for the next round of grants. In May, the commissioners adopted the panel’s advice in awarding more than $900,000 in government funds to 23 charities.

New Horizons, which opened an office in Waldorf about a year ago, had considered applying for one of these grants but didn’t, Executive Director Peter Holden said in a telephone interview Monday. He hoped to secure funding for his organization directly from the commissioners after meeting them, he said, as part of a push to expand services in five Maryland counties, but would work with county staff, too.

“I would think that the grant process would be including whatever process the commissioners decide. They’re the ones that end up having to — the buck stops there, I guess you’d say. But we’ll work with anybody that can help us meet the needs of the Charles County citizens with disabilities.”

Besides New Horizons, Davis suggested giving money directly to charities to advance the Vision 2020 program, which aims to work directly with impoverished families to improve the lives of struggling people.

“Our antipoverty program, now the Vision 2020 program, it’s a commissioner priority. … It came up in conversation with some of the other commissioners [that] perhaps it would be incumbent on us to target some of this money, some of this $900,000, toward potential partners for the program. And some of the money on an annual basis should go to support commissioners’ goals and objectives just in general,” Davis said.

But Kelly balked at picking favorites. The board could change its directives to the grants panel if it wants to target poverty but should leave the assessment of applications to panel members, she said.

“I think the sense is the commissioners would go through and set up some criteria that were more specific to what kinds of nonprofits and the services they deliver would best support the mission of the anti-poverty campaign, as opposed to anyone just reaching out and picking one nonprofit,” Kelly said.

Planning the 2013 round of grants, Knapp asked the board to devise a way to keep nonprofits from learning the fate of their grant applications before they are formally notified by county government. In May, a list of approved and rejected applications was posted on the county website and published in the Maryland Independent weeks before letters went out, a situation Robinson called “very embarrassing.”

The delay occurred because grant approvals are not final until the county’s budget is approved, which happened in late June.

Knapp suggested keeping the list secret until the fiscal 2014 budget approval formalized grant awards. County Attorney Barbara L. Holtz suggested this would be legal, but Kelly objected to keeping the list under wraps.

“The press is going to be here. This isn’t secret information,” Kelly said.

Knapp suggested sending out “provisional” letters as soon as the commissioners make their decision, which could be more confusing to recipients but cause “less embarrassment” than having applicants hearing from the media first.

emitrano@somdnews.com