Grants have been in the news a lot lately. These are vital, of course, to economic development. They provide millions of dollars per year to spur the economy — to lure employers to North Carolina and to allow businesses already located here to expand their operations.
There are all sorts of opportunities for local governments to cash in on dollars offered by the N.C. Department of Commerce to drive the economy. There are JDIGs and JMACs. One mustn’t forget the OneNC and IDF funds. Of course, most of us haven’t the slightest idea what any of those mean.
For the random village idiot such as myself to wrap his head around these programs, he would have to consult an expert, and those are easy to find. Experts in grants are all over the place because the grant operations at all levels of government have created a massive grant-writing infrastructure.
Local governments spend hundreds of thousands of dollars either employing staff grant writers or hiring some consulting firm to write their grant applications. These folks are highly skilled to go after “free money.” It makes sense to spend a little money to go after “free money,” right?
The problem is there is no such thing as free money. It’s not a thing. Commerce Secretary John Skvarla never took any time off from campaigning for his boss on the public dime to pick hundred dollar bills off the money tree at the governor’s mansion. It’s not free. It’s not magic money. It’s my money. It’s your money, and it’s your neighbor’s money.
Nothing irks me more than to here somebody say “It’s free money.” There’s no such thing.
Here’s my first problem with this whole grant scheme we have these days. Andyville, a village made up of the 500 or so people in this world who don’t hate me, must spend tens of thousands of dollars every year to pull money back to Andyville — money that originated from the pockets of Andyville’s residents.
Of course, Andyville could be located anywhere. The grant infrastructure exists everywhere in the United States, but let’s just say Andyville is in North Carolina.
After the application is prepared by experts, Andyville’s grant application goes to Raleigh, where it is reviewed by people getting paid, in part, by Andyville’s residents.
The writers and reviewers don’t come cheap either. According to salary.com, a grant writer in Winston-Salem makes about $63,000 per year. There’s an entire empire of these folks sucking away the hard-earned dollars of residents, all to seek money which was ours from the beginning.
From July of 2007 through June of 2015 the N.C. Department of Commerce shelled out $1.3 billion dollars in JDIGs and all of those other acronyms which mean nothing to the vast majority of us, according to a fact sheet on the department’s website.
That’s a lot of money. When we divide that figure by North Carolina’s 10 million residents, we find $130 was dished out per resident throughout the course of those eight fiscal years. That number multiplied by Surry County’s 70,000 residents is $9.1 million.
I haven’t the time to research this, but something tells me Surry County wasn’t awarded $9.1 million in Commerce grants throughout that period of time.
Of course, our residents are also funding all of those positions for those writing grants and reviewing grants. I can’t put a number on what the grant writing infrastructure costs us either, but I doubt it’s cheap.
Here’s the other problem. These grants never seem to work out around these parts. Pilot Mountain owes $300,000 for an economic development incentive gone awry. The county just battled with a local restaurant owner and Commerce over funds used to run water and sewer lines, and Surry County won’t use more than $700,000 in Commerce grants for the Interstates sewer project.
Part of the problem is the grants are all based on job creation. They place the standard at the same level for every county in the state. In Charlotte, it might make sense to invest $500,000 and expect 50 jobs to result, but in rural North Carolina a more reasonable expectation might be the creation of 20 jobs for the same investment.
Based on past experiences, leaders in places like Surry are forced to forgo the use of these “free monies.” That means Surry County tax dollars are sent elsewhere for projects which don’t benefit Surry County residents.
Here’s an idea. Do away with all of these grant processes and return the money collected to local leaders based on the population of each county. They should know how best to use it — how to use dollars originating from Surry County taxpayers to benefit Surry County taxpayers.
That plan also saves us millions — at least tens of millions — of dollars every year, as we wouldn’t be funding the pieces of the grant writing machine.
Nine million dollars without strings attached could go a long way in economic development here.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.