The Nebraska Environmental Trust consists of nine citizen members appointed by the governor, along with five state agency administrators, four of which are appointed by the governor, leaving the governor in control of who serves on the board. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — Another day, another round of criticism about the grant decisions made this year by the Nebraska Environmental Trust.
Of the 87 grant applications the Trust received this year, 40 were deemed ineligible for grants, including several applications that had won approval in past years.
That prompted more than a dozen complaints in live and written testimony Thursday about the Trust’s decision making that, in past years, had disqualified only a handful of applications a year.
Grants deemed ineligible from Whitney to Lincoln
Grant applicants lined up to express confusion on why they were rejected and plead for reconsideration, including a grant deemed ineligible for a water pipeline for the Whitney Irrigation District, would-be grants helping recycling programs in Ogallala and Alliance and one tht would have aided a university professor’s research into unique “cooling panels” made of corn.
“How can you not support the only regional (household hazardous waste disposal) facility in the state of Nebraska?” asked Denise McGovern-Gallagher of the Grand Island Area Clean Community System.
Past grant applications by the Clean Community group had been approved by the Trust, she said.
The Grand Island-based Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, which seeks to conserve wetland habitat in south-central Nebraska, questioned whether there was some kind of misunderstanding. It had three grant applications tossed out.
“These are very similar grants that we’ve submitted in the past,” said John Thorburn, the board chairman of the Joint Venture, who was concerned about inconsistencies in the decisions.
‘Don’t kill us’
Kathy Worley of Keep Alliance Beautiful said she came into 2022 more confident of getting an $88,000 grant for its regional recycling operation after talking with Trust officials about how to improve their application. The Alliance group wasn’t funded by the Trust last year, for the first time in a decade.
Either (the grant reviewers) don’t understand the criteria or are applying it with a bias
– former State Sen. Bob Wickersham
“If (the Trust) is going a different direction, let us know,” she said after the meeting, during which she pleaded for at least partial funding of their grant request.
“Please don’t kill us completely,” Worley said.
During the Trust Board’s meeting on Thursday, Felix Davidson, the head of the Trust’s grant committee and a former member of Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration, detailed the steps taken by the committee to determine whether grant applications were eligible.
All reviewers must find eligible
Davidson said a majority of reviewers had to agree that a grant was eligible according to 12 criteria, including whether a project provides “clear and direct environmental benefits” or whether it would “pay for private benefits” rather than public ones.
Reviewers agreed that 47 of the 87 applications were eligible, he said.
When asked during a meeting break to provide more detail on why so many grants, including those approved in the past, were ruled out this year, Davidson declined, saying he stood by what he said during the Thursday session.
The Trust Board has come under fire in recent years over its grant decisions, which included defunding a handful of wildlife conservation grants two years ago and shifting the funds to install ethanol blender pumps. Some of the barbs have been directed at Ricketts, who controls who sits in 13 of the 14 seats on the board.
Governor ‘hell bent’ on destroying the Trust
That swap, which prompted a lawsuit and the formation of watchdog group to monitor Trust decisions, has been illustrative of the transformation of the Environmental Trust, which critics say has become more about politics and helping farm groups than conservation of land and wildlife, and recycling.
A year ago, after the Trust deemed 36 of 118 grant applications ineligible for final scoring, one former Trust board member, Gail Yanney of Omaha, said that Ricketts seems “hell bent on destroying” the Trust. It was created, along with the State Lottery, to distribute about $20 million a year in lottery proceeds for environmental projects.
Ricketts, in past comments, has defended the board’s actions. And Trust Board members have said they are just more completely following the rules in awarding grants.
But two weeks ago, the Trust got an earful of criticism during a “listening session” on how to improve its rules and regulations, contained in Title 137.
Trust rules a concern
On Thursday, the lone Trust Board member who voted against approving the long list of disqualifications, Paul Dunn of Omaha, said the rest of the board is putting “too narrow” of an interpretation of Title 137, and is not in keeping with the spirit and intent of the Trust’s enabling legislation. The stated mission of the Trust is to “conserve, enhance and restore the natural environments of Nebraska.”
Even one board member who ratified all of the ineligibility determinations of the grant committee, Jeff Kanger of Lincoln, acknowledged that there are “concerns” about the Trust’s rules.
“The language in 137 is incredibly subjective,” he said.
Bob Wickersham, a former state senator who is part of the watchdog group, “Friends of the Environmental Trust,” told the Trust Board on Thursday that the criticism should be a clear sign that the public doesn’t approve of the recent changes in the Trust.
The distrust, Wickersham maintained, is translating into fewer applications for Trust grants. Last year, there were 118 applications, this year, 87.
Process ‘not objectively fair’
“(Grant applicants) simply didn’t want to participate in a process that they couldn’t tell if it was objectively fair,” he said. “You have too much disparity among the ratings of your reviewers.”
Wickersham said that one grant reviewer, “Reviewer 1” (reviewers aren’t identified by name) found that four grant applications didn’t meet any of the 12 eligibility requirements, while four other reviewers gave two of those grants perfect “12” scores.
“Either (the reviewers) don’t understand the criteria or are applying it with a bias,” the former senator said. “A grant applicant wouldn’t want either of those.”
Out in Alliance, Worley said she doesn’t know what her recycling operation will do.
After losing out on a $95,000 NET grant last year, she reduced staff by three positions and was able to obtain $50,000 in contingency funds from the City of Alliance.
Trying to stay positive
This year, she’s already arranged for rent-free office space in the northwest Nebraska community. But Worley said, the loss of environmental grant funding means more cutbacks in staff, and a search for grant funds elsewhere. Some tough decisions are ahead.
“I’m trying to have a positive attitude,” she said. “But this is a hardship for us.”
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