Butler County commissioners quarrel over panel that will recommend low-income projects

Carpenter says she was not included on decision of who is on committee.

Butler County Commissioner Cindy Carpenter abruptly left the weekly meeting Monday after a disagreement over the new composition of the panel tasked with recommending projects for millions of dollars in federal low income grants.

Each year, the commissioners receive federal Community Development Block Grant and HOME Investment Partnerships Program money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This year they received $3.2 million in a federal Community Development Block Grant and $1.1 million in HOME funding requests but only had $2.17 million to spend helping low-to moderate-income areas countywide.

The county has always used a committee — comprised of representatives from the Development Department, Job and Family Services, the county engineer, Water & Sewer and development staff — to make recommendations.

Carpenter complained about the composition of the advisory panel in May saying “to me that committee doesn’t represent the communities in the county.” Carpenter told the Journal-News she walked out halfway through the meeting after sparing with Commissioner T.C. Rogers because she was blindsided when she learned the committee has been expanded and she wasn’t consulted.

“It is very frustrating when my voice isn’t heard...,” she said. “I have raised my concerns up for many years and today I was quite shocked to find out that there is a new committee that’s been organized to review these on behalf of the commissioners.”

The topic came up when she questioned a $31,000 software purchase for the Department of Development and County Administrator Judi Boyko told her it is part of the department’s efforts to improve the process. She added the county’s new Community Development Administrator Susan Ellerhorst has expanded the review panel to include representatives from United Way, the county mental health and addiction board and the Butler Educational Services Center.

The CDBG money typically goes for infrastructure in communities that have low-to-moderate income areas for projects like sidewalk repairs, water and sewer projects, community center upgrades and other needs. The HOME dollars are generally spent on addressing the homeless situation and dearth of affordable housing countywide.

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The panel makes recommendations and usually tries to spread the dollars as evenly as possible, but the commissioners have not always followed the recommendations.

Carpenter said she doesn’t believe the three new members bring much to the table.

“That’s a great group of caring people but in looking at what we have as projects in community development, I don’t know that that’s the right group,” Carpenter said. “We would want expertise in areas that relate to the projects that we routinely review.”

She said she doesn’t like to be surprised and Rogers said “I thought that’s what you wanted.”

Raising her voice she replied “I wouldn’t pick that group, I’m sure it meant something to somebody, I don’t know how they chose that group or what they were shoring up.”

They bantered back and forth over the people that were added and Rogers said she shouldn’t have been surprised because the issue has been discussed.

“What is the phrase, be careful what you ask for you’ll get something else?” she said. “I don’t know what to do with that one, it’s just sad, the commissioners should be involved if it has something to do with the commissioners.”

Rogers replied, “we are involved, whoever makes the recommendation, whatever group, if there’s 20 more people on it, it still comes down to we evaluate the recommendations and we decide who or what is going to get it.”

Just before she left she said the commissioners should be choosing the advisory panel “theoretically it would go to a group of experts in the subject matter to review it and make the recommendation,” she said. “I’ve spent my life fighting bad government, this is just bad government.”

Rogers countered with “who is the one that evaluates if someone is an expert or not” and he said the reason they have departments such as community development is to advise them on matters like this, because it just isn’t feasible for the commissioners to be hands-on with every detail.

As she left Rogers said “wait a minute, are you really going to walk out again?” This is not the first time Carpenter has made a hasty exit from a meeting when the three have disagreed.

Ellerhorst’s boss Development Director David Fehr said HUD doesn’t require the advisory panel and it would not be inappropriate to have people in the community on the advisory panel who receive the funding. He said the three resources they chose have “their pulse on what’s occurring throughout the county” so they are not “duplicating something that’s already happening out there.”

Carpenter told the Journal-News she wants to be involved in picking the panel and the process because she wants the group to understand the commissioners’ priorities for the money.

“I would like to help, I would like the end process to be something meaningful to the commissioners,” she said. “I do understand what T.C. Rogers said, that we can always vote against it, well that’s stupid, why would we want to set up a process that doesn’t give us the best recommendations possible.”

Boyko said the staff was trying to be responsive to Carpenter’s request that they expand the committee “with others that have exposure to the county in different demographics, different cohorts.”

She also pointed out it is a “technical committee that is there to review, assess and make recommendations to the board.”

Commissioner Don Dixon was silent during the exchange but told the Journal-News later they have to be very careful when choosing the panel, even though it is only advisory.

“You can’t put people on that board that support you’re programs that you feel strongly about that you want to give money to,” he said. “That’s like voting yourself a raise, it just doesn’t work that way.”

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