Members of the Nebraska Environmental Trust Board met Thursday in Lincoln in an emergency session. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Amid criticism that too many grant applications were being deemed “ineligible,” the Nebraska Environmental Trust Board moved Thursday to review its eligibility requirements.
State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, in a recent op-ed in the Lincoln Journal Star, questioned the Trust Board for declaring that 34 of the 118 grants submitted to it last year were ineligible for funding.
As the Nebraska Examiner reported earlier this year, that was a much higher rate of rejecting applications and ruled out some organizations, including recycling operations in Omaha and Ogallala, that had received funding for years from the Environmental Trust.
McCollister also took the Trust to task for not being transparent, “adding insult to injury” in not explaining why certain applications had been deemed “ineligible.”
At Thursday’s board meeting, Lynn Roper, a former member of the Environmental Trust Board, and former State Sen. Sandy Scofield also raised concerns. They said revamping and clarifying the rules concerning eligibility the top priority for the agency, which doles out about $20 million in grants a year for environmental projects.
Others, including Scottsbluff banker Hod Kosman and Gail Yanney, a former Trust Board member from Omaha, have also decried recent decisions by the board.
In response, the Trust Board voted Thursday to set up an ad hoc committee of board members to review the rules and regulations of the agency, the so-called Title 137, which were last reviewed in 2017.
Board actions defended
Josh Anderson of Edgar, the board chairman, deferred comment about the recent criticism to Karl Elmshaeuser, the executive director of the Trust.
Elmshaeuser said that McCollister is entitled to his opinion but that the 14-member board has been transparent, has been following open meetings laws and has followed the process to determine whether grant applications are eligible to be considered for grants or not.
When asked whether applicants had gotten explanations as to why they were deemed ineligible, he said, “I don’t think it’s fair to address each application, case by case.”
The Trust, which gets a portion of the proceeds of the Nebraska Lottery to finance its grants, has been under fire in recent months for some of its grant decisions.
Controversial grant swap
Two years ago, the Trust defunded a handful of grants to conservation groups so that more money could be diverted to a project to install more ethanol blender pumps at gas stations, a way to boost use of the corn-based fuel.
The move, slammed as placing farm interests above environmental and conservation projects, prompted a lawsuit and the formation of a watchdog group, Friends of the Environmental Trust.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, a staunch supporter of ethanol, appoints nine of the 14 members of the Trust Board, with state agency heads holding the other five seats. He has supported the decisions of the board, including the grant switch for ethanol, and has declined to reappoint Trust Board members who disagree with his political views on conservation.
The Trust Board met in emergency session Thursday so it could enact changes in its system of ranking grant applications in time for the new rules to be used to review 2022 applications. A Grants Committee reviews all applications and provides recommendations to the full board after scoring them on a 17-question matrix of issues, such as measurable environmental impact and general public benefit.
The new ranking system, billed as better adhering to the Trust’s rules and regulations, will be 10 questions, including environmental and economic benefits and whether matching funds or in-kind services are included.
The new ranking system also makes it optional to consider the geographic location of the grant. Under the old system, there was an attempt to provide an equal amount of grants in each of the state’s three congressional districts.
Felix Davidson, a former TD Ameritrade executive appointed to the Trust Board after being tapped by Ricketts to be his chief operations officer for the state, called the changes in the ranking system “not perfect” but a “great improvement” over the old system.
Anderson, the board’s chairman, said changing the eligibility rules was a separate question from changing the ranking system. That led to approval of a committee, called the Special Ad Hoc Title 137 Committee, to review the Trust’s rules and regulations, including those concerning eligibility of grants.
Elmshaeuser said it might take a year for that committee to complete its work.
Both Roper and Scofield asked the Trust Board to consider bringing in an outside consultant to review the eligibility rules. Elmshaeuser said the board will consider using the services of the governor’s Center of Operational Excellence, which has helped review the Trust’s operations in recent months.
Skeptical of decisions
McCollister, when contacted Thursday, said he thinks the State Legislature should be allowed to weigh in on the revisions being considered by the Trust.
He added that he remains skeptical that the Trust, in recent years, has been following its mandate, which is to “conserve, enhance and restore the natural environments of Nebraska.”
“The altered funding priorities have many people feeling that the Trust is failing to follow its original mandate and is becoming beholden to outside influences,” McCollister wrote in his recent op-ed.
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