The Van Wert County Courthouse

Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2024

County frustrated with federal officials

DAVE MOSIER/independent editor

The frustration is mounting for the Van Wert County Board of Commissioners over a mandate to repay $365,000 in federal grant money for what county officials call a minor paperwork error.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is seeking repayment of a grant awarded to the county for a sewer project along U.S. 127 and Ohio 118 south of Van Wert. The reason for the decision is the failure to file an environmental impact study prior to the release of funds for the project.

Commissioner Thad Lichtensteiger said that, in his opinion, the issue is a minor one, since the study was completed on time, but just wasn’t filed by the time money was released for the project. He also added that the money was used for the purpose intended.

While other grant funding for the approximately $1.5-million project does not have to be repaid, HUD officials are adamant that the county repay the money they provided for the project. Doing so, though, would create a big hole filled with red ink in the middle of the county’s current-year budget.

Lichtensteiger said repaying the grant as mandated would leave the county looking at a $180,000 budget deficit this year — a big fiscal headache for the current commissioners, none of whom were in office when the error occurred back in 2009.

While everyone the commissioners have talked to think the problem should be easy to solve, none of them have been able to do so. Those who have weighed in on behalf of the county include U.S. Senators Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown and U.S. Representative Bob Latta, as well as Ohio Senator Cliff Hite.

“Everyone we talk to has the same reaction,” Lichtensteiger said. “It looks like common-sense stuff that ought to be waived, but it’s statutory and there’s nothing we can do.

“At the end of the day, when you’re dealing with the (federal) government, our hands are tied,” he added.

All three commissioners said they feel there’s no good reason all of the $365,000 should have to be repaid for just a minor paperwork error, adding that HUD itself is also culpable in the situation, since it issued the funds without checking to see if the county had dotted all the I’s and crossed the T’s needed to receive the money.

The commissioners say they have appealed to Ohio Governor John Kasich to see if he can provide some sort of waiver on repaying the grant, but none of them said they were hopeful at this point of a reasonable solution to the problem.

Meanwhile, failure to repay the money would create an even bigger fiscal problem for the county, since the federal government would likely withhold grant funding from the county until the funds were repaid.

“The bottom line is, if we don’t pay it back, or agree to pay it back within a year, they freeze all our grants in the county,” said Commissioner Stan Owens. “We’re looking roughly at $2.7 million in grants down the road.”

Owens said it was a question of paying the $365,000 or losing millions in federal grant money, noting that failure to repay the money would impact projects countywide.

POSTED: 06/28/13 at 8:01 am. FILED UNDER: News