Recent trends in finance and economics, including the recession, have changed the extent to which non-federal public entities can expect single-source project funding. Local leaders have had to make hard decisions about how to prioritize their communities’ needs. Having to look harder to find alternative funding sources has become status quo.
The grant option, although it doesn’t represent a permanent revenue stream, can take specific infrastructure or service projects from the back burner to the front. Grant funding for water and wastewater projects, in particular, has remained relatively constant even during the recession.
Reba Campbell, deputy executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina, and Jeff Shacker, field services manager, said that the first step to being awarded grant funding is to do a realistic evaluation of whether the project is a priority.
“It’s also important in many cases to request funding for a project that addresses a priority identified in a strategic (or other adopted) plan and to explicitly illustrate the connection in the funding request,” Shacker advised. “It’s a strong position to be in, as an applicant, when you can show that the money you are requesting will be invested in a project that addresses a need or opportunity that has been identified in a plan or analysis that was conducted in the past and that may have incorporated public input.
“Grantors often like not only plans, but plans with phased implementation strategies. The successful completion of early phases sometimes makes it easier to secure funding for later phases.”
Rock Hill and Newberry, S.C., have had notable success realizing recent projects, in part because they have mastered the technique of layering their grants with loans and local matches.
In Newberry, overmatching of grants made funding requests more attractive. Sometimes that over-leveraging was accomplished with third-party sources such as other grants. The same could apply though, Shacker said, to the use of loans, deferred forgivable loans and some tax credit programs.
Recent technological developments have also made it easier to comply with the reporting requirements that accompany a grant award.
When municipalities and states apply for federal funds, they’re obligated to follow the federal audit authority trail. This streamlines the activity and gives both parties the confidence that the money is being administered as intended. Nearly all grants have some sort of management guidelines, though, and regulations or statutes of state, local foundations and sometimes quasi-governmental entities that must be followed. Annual, semi-annual, quarterly and “special” reports are often required, and sometimes audits. But grant reporting requirements are not standard across the government — not even across the levels of government.
“What we find is, folks don’t have solutions to manage their grants. Where’s the continuity of communication? How do we report and to whom?” asked Eric Brenner, director of the Maryland Governor’s Grants Office.
Many grantors assist with such grant administration services. In South Carolina, those services are most often provided by the Regional Councils of Governments and engineering firms. Several companies also write grant management software.
“I think the association can assist by disseminating information about grant opportunities and, through the field services program, generate greater awareness of outside sources of funding for their projects by listening to the needs expressed by local officials and helping them identify possible sources of financial assistance,” Shacker said. “From that point on, it would be necessary for the city or town to engage a consultant or request assistance from their COG to advance the funding request.”
Whatever the source, professional grant administration saves time and resources — allowing staff members to concentrate on management of the project, while the consultant ensures that all grant requirements are met during the project.
Software programs, such as Amplifund, are another option. Amplifund monitors the entire grants funding life cycle, beginning with identifying the funding mechanism. The guidance continues through the submission to agencies, and once the grant has been awarded, it’s used to manage reporting.
The Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board published a white paper in June 2013 on the Grants Reporting Information Project that addressed the issues with reporting the administration of federal grants. Its recommendations included adoption of financial report data standards and standardized business processes, such as electronic reporting mechanisms and an emphasis on bulk or batch XML filing in order to reduce the management burden and improve efficiencies if implemented across the federal government.