Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 23, 2013

Tribal money requests spark debate

BY ANNE STANTON astanton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Intense debate recently flared over whether Leelanau County should pass on grant requests from nonprofits to the area Indian tribe.

“The pot of money is only so big and the tribe gets a lot of requests,” said Leelanau County Administrator Chet Janik. “The county endorsing outside requests, not internal, raises the question, are we competing with ourselves with the funding.”

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians distributes 2 percent of its electronic gambling revenue to local governments and nonprofits, but the tribe requires that all nonprofit requests go through a governmental unit.

In the past, grant requests were forwarded by local governments with little controversy, but that’s changed. Last December, Grand Traverse County commissioners killed Planned Parenthood’s application for $12,000 grant to pay for abstinence-based sex education in area schools.

Now Leelanau County is embroiled in its own debate, mostly because of what county officials contend are legal concerns.

The Leelanau Early Childhood Development Commission asked the county to pass on a $68,000 request for “Planning Communities,” an award-winning program that provides support to new and expectant parents and young children.

The Leelanau Christian Neighbors asked the county to forward its request of $32,335 to provide short-term emergency relief to county residents.

The county board moved last week to exclude both requests, but approved five others from county departments.

The county board voted 5 to 2 to forward Leelanau Christian Neighbors’ grant request. The Leelanau Early Childhood Development Commission withdrew its request because it was able to get Leland Public Schools to put it before the tribe.

Some meeting attendees believed commissioners’ decision was a form of censorship, Janik said.

“But our attorney made it clear we do have a legal right to say ‘yes or no,’ that there has to be a contract with the agency, and the county does have to monitor the funding. This is not just a pass-through process,” Janik said.

A critical issue is whether the county should only ask for money on behalf of the county departments. But others argued that nonprofits help fill gaps of county services with needed expertise.

Betsy Fisher argued last week that strong family support from “Parenting Communities” in the early years ultimately saves money for the county’s foster care, jail and court programs, according to meeting minutes.

The program works hand-in-hand with county departments, such as the health department and probate court, said Patricia Soutas-Little, a Leelanau County resident and former county board candidate, in an interview.

Leelanau County Commissioner Debra Rushton, who voted against passing on the grant for emergency relief, said both programs are “very worthy.”

“My concern is, the county could be named in a lawsuit and then citizens are on the hook,” she said.

Leelanau County, for example, incurred $14,000 in legal fees to extract itself from a Northport sewer lawsuit. In that case, the county’s only role was to put its credit rating behind the project’s bond request, she said.

“The chances are slim to none,” of Leelanau Christian Neighbors getting sued, Rushton said, “but the problem is when you open the door to liability, all the citizens will suffer the consequences of having to pay.”