Last week, The County Record brought you the first in a series on the Community Development Block Grant program, commonly referred to as CDBG. This grant program brings with it numerous opportunities to aid counties and cities, through economic development, fire protection, infrastructure and housing needs. However, one common issue tossed around the community is about road projects taking precedence over other needs.
Although Calhoun County certainly has a fair share of road issues, a vast number of these needs have been met. Complaints The County Record has received in recent years include some roads being paved or widened when very few people utilize those roads.
In researching these concerns, The County Record learned that the next CDBG project proposed by county officials is earmarked, yet again, for road work, our question was this: Who makes the recommendations and are any other projects being considered for CDBG funds?
A review of the County Commission minutes indicates a Citizens Advisory Council is established in accordance with CDBG guidelines to make recommendations on what project to seek in the grant application. It took numerous emails and phone calls to county staff to finally determine that Debbie Roumelis Belcher, who manages the grant process for the county, also takes the minutes for the Citizens Advisory Council. Belcher works in conjunction with County Administrator Sonny O’Bryan’s office on grant projects.
About a month ago, News Editor Kelli Peacock Dunn spoke at length with Belcher who explained she has been assisting the county in administering grants for many years. “They sort of choose the project and I fine tune it,” she remarked. Belcher said she prepares all the quarterly and monthly reports on grants, as well as reimbursement requests, mailings and meeting notifications. She said Preble-Rish, serving as the county engineer, handles design, cost estimates and the bidding process, then inspects the project and approves contract payments.
Serving on the Citizens Advisory Council are County Building Inspector Dowling Parrish (chair), Donald Stanley of Preble-Rish, and community members, Glenn Kimbrel, Steve Bailey, Danny Ryals, Phillip Hill, Clifford Newsome, Lee Alday and Rolf Myrhammar. Non-voting members are Sonny O’Bryan and his assistant, Angie Smith.
The County Record requested copies of the past three to four Citizen Advisory Council meeting minutes from Belcher. We initially received one from 2010, then spoke with Belcher this week and secured another set of minutes from 2012.
During a phone call with Belcher last Thursday, Peacock Dunn inquired whether the advisory council members are informed on what the CDBG program can do besides roads. Belcher assured her they are informed, but stated, “Calhoun County just has a lot of roads that wash out.” However, a review of the minutes indicated the council has met only twice in three years, was presented a list of roads by O’Bryan, then all in attendance voted unanimously to approve those roads for the grant application. There was no discussion on any other grant possibilities.
Peacock Dunn noted the Citizens Advisory Council is also the Local Mitigation Strategy Steering Committee. When asked why this is the case, Belcher said it was just difficult to get people to serve on a committee in a small county so people often served on both. She was unaware who appointed them and directed the newspaper to the county.
When Peacock Dunn told Belcher she would call her back after reviewing the 2012 minutes, Belcher said she was asked not to speak with her anymore and told her to direct all calls to Sonny O’Bryan.
According to his staff, O’Bryan is on vacation and will return on November 5.