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Explaining my vote on social grant funding

At our last City Council meeting, we were asked to affirm recommended social service grant funding put forth by the Health and Human Services Commission. At the meeting, I suggested that the recommended funding to Options for Homeless Residents of Ashland be reduced.

It was presented in the initial reporting by the Tidings that the motion I put forth to dramatically reduce OHRA’s grant award was a “penalty” due to the actions of OHRA’s board president during the HHSC’s grant review process. Anyone who was present at the meeting or has watched the video would know that this is untrue and taken out of context. Yes, I was and still am greatly disappointed and disturbed by the process. What happened was not only avoidable, but gave the distinct impression to any other applicant that the system was rigged. OHRA board president Sharon Harris, an HHSC member, was advised previously by the city attorney to recuse herself from the process. Even though it was not a financial conflict of interest, it was clear that staying involved in the process would at least give the appearance of favoritism on the part of the HHSC if not have a direct impact on the recommended funding decisions by the HHSC. However, despite the legal advice given, Harris took part in the meeting as an HHSC member. During this meeting she not only took part in the questioning of some of the applicants, but took part in the discussion and final vote.

What resulted from the process was OHRA receiving 95 percent of their original ask, while all other applicants received a significantly lower percentage and where no questions were asked of OHRA by the HHSC after their initial presentation. It is hard to imagine that the other applicants did not feel that there was favoritism at play. However, as questionable as the process was, it was not the only reason I supported a lower grant award for OHRA.

I don’t believe a reasonable person could argue that the city has not supported OHRA. I was part of the council in 2014 and I supported providing OHRA, a new organization at the time, $100,000 to begin operating the Ashland Resource Center. It was made very clear to OHRA at the time that the initial funding was “seed money” to help get them started, but that it was expected they would become self-sufficient. The following year, the City Council awarded OHRA an additional $37,000 social service grant and agreed to set aside several thousand more dollars to OHRA if they could raise enough funds to purchase a building.

Despite the city granting OHRA $137,000 dollars over the past four years, OHRA has been unable to secure other funding sources or initiate a fundraising campaign that allows them to be self-sufficient. In fact, in their recent application, it was made clear that OHRA’s preferred method of fundraising is through city of Ashland grant requests. This is simply not a sustainable method of funding a nonprofit organization and it puts OHRA in a position to require preferential treatment over other Ashland-based nonprofits, who conduct significant fundraising to support their operations. OHRA is an important piece of our collection of nonprofit human service organizations, but they should be treated equally. Simply continuing to be OHRA’s primary funder only supports their flawed funding strategy and keeps them from achieving long-term financial stability.

Another important piece of the story is that giving such a large award to OHRA meant shorting St. Vincent DePaul, which not only provides many of the same services to Ashland residents, but it is also important to note that all of the funds awarded to St. Vincent’s go directly to their services. In contrast, OHRA’s funding request would not have gone to services, but rather building and staff costs. In an era of limited grant funds, it just makes sense to grant money for services rather than overhead. Reducing OHRA’s recommended funding also allowed the City Council to fully award several other grant applicant requests, allowing a broader impact.

As one can see, the funding decision for me was multi-faceted. It was not simply a penalty for the board president inappropriately involving herself in the process. I will not presume to know Harris’s motivation, but the appearance that it implies is disturbing, allowing one to believe that in Ashland, it is not what you do but who you know that determines funding or support for certain projects. It also supports a growing suspicion of some in our community that special interests are populating some of our commissions.

Let me be clear: We have wonderful commissions and we are lucky to have residents willing to step forward to serve, but I also want individuals who are willing to put the community’s interests above their own, not to join commissions to advance their own causes. If there are any instances in which this appears to be the case, I will continue to speak out and cast light upon it. As an elected representative of the community it is my obligation to do so, even if it ruffles some feathers.

— Greg Lemhouse is a member of the Ashland City Council.