ITHACA, N.Y.—The withdrawal of Second Wind Cottages’ application for expansion funding from the Tompkins County Recovery Fund was met with much dismay at the loss of a project that would have directly impacted the unhoused population in Ithaca and the county.
But the withdrawal, which came because Second Wind was at odds with the Town of Newfield over the project, did free up $510,000 that the county must now decide where to allocate as the last part of its recovery fund, which consisted of $6.5 million in leftover county funds thanks to a surplus created by federal relief money during the COVID-19 pandemic. That was the recovery fund committee’s main discussion Monday, though it focused more on approach and strategy to reassessing applications rather than weighing the merit of the applications themselves, all of which were submitted last fall.
Before the actual discussion began, Tracy Verrier from MRB Group gave a brief update on the status of TCRF to this point. Tracy said there haven’t been too many tangible developments in the short time since projects were approved, but that progress is being made administratively. She relayed that of all the projects approved for funding, 44 have contracts fully in place, with under 10 projects yet to officially reach a contract.
Committee chair Dan Klein laid out two questions at the beginning of the meeting that he wanted to answer: whether or not new applications would be accepted, and whether organizations with applications that had been partially funded would be allowed to request more funding. The committee voted against new applications and against additional funding to projects that already received money, with the exception of the Tompkins Chamber since the funds they received (around $21,000) was awarded last and made up of money that was leftover from the dozens of projects funded beforehand.
In some more tone-setting, Klein presented four options to proceed with the funding. He said the committee could proceed down the prioritized list as it had been previously compiled, potentially allowing organizations to tweak their minimum funding requests since some now exceed the $510,000 now available; the committee could consider all of the 27 applications that had not been funded at all after making it past the first vote; the committee could reconsider all 234 applications again; or the committee could move forward with just member-filed submissions and members could advance whatever projects they prefer for consideration before the full committee.
Eventually, though, the committee settled on a rather creative fourth option.
“There are 27 applications that we might consider ‘pre-approved’ from last year. Those are automatically in the running,” Klein said. “Then, each legislator can choose one more applicant from last year to put into the ‘eligible’ category. There are approximately 150 applications from last year that can be chosen to be put into the ‘eligible’ category. Assuming that most legislators engage in that process, we will end up with approximately 40 total to vote on.”
That means 14 additional projects, of the nearly 180 that failed in the first round of voting, will now have a shot at receiving some portion of the $510,000 that remains on the table. They will first be allowed to change their minimum funding requests, a suggestion from committee member and Legislator Mike Sigler.
“There is an implication there that every legislator has faithfully and equitably reviewed every application in deciding which one they want to pull out and put on a higher level, so just be ready to respond to that,” Klein said.
Fellow committee member Veronica Pillar, also a legislator, wondered aloud whether or not people would actually be willing to change their minimum amount of funding requested on applications, to which Legislator Travis Brooks responded that in his experience writing grants, applicants almost always ask for more than they need as their minimum. With a much smaller pot of money now, he was confident people would be able to lower their minimums if given the opportunity.
Klein expressed apprehension about allowing minimum changes, reasoning that it would push applicants to jockey against each other to get approved for money. But after voicing that concern he moved ahead with an initial vote that would allow the top 40 applications who were not funded to tweak their minimum funding request.
“I understand reality, that you do have to game the system a little bit,” Klein said with a laugh. “Now that we’re the system, I don’t want to be gamed.”
Sigler suggested some more tweaks to the process, but found less support than the minimum amount change.
“I think if we ever want to get this process over with, we have to stop aiming for a result that’s absolutely perfect in every way, because it ain’t happening,” Legislator Deborah Dawson said.
The discussion revisited the fact that while MRB Group had indeed went through a scoring procedure for projects, the committee and legislature did not adhere very closely to those scores during the approval process, as some applications that were given low scores were still funded. As Dawson pointed out, though, MRB’s scoring did not factor in community benefit as much as the legislature decided when assessing projects.
Klein also began the proceedings with an official vote disallowing applicants from lobbying legislature members to support their requests. It was somewhat of an empty gesture, as several legislators acknowledged that they couldn’t actually prevent anyone from contacting them to support a certain application. Regardless, Klein said it would make him more comfortable if there was an official vote instead of members saying it individually, and the amendment was approved.