MSP de-obligates Belle trail grant; comment period ends Friday

By: 
Roxie Murphy
Staff Writer

BELLE — A $72,328 recreational Trails Program (RTP) grant awarded to the city of Belle in 2014 to surface the Rock Island railbed through city limits has been de-obligated by Missouri State Parks (MSP) according to Deputy Director of Administration Mike Sutherland.

Sutherland, MSP’s Rebecca Rost, Mayor Josh Seaver and city court clerk and grant writer Barb Schaller met at 11 a.m. Nov. 20 at city hall. City officials wanted to discuss why the they had not received a response to two letters requesting a grant extension on the project. They also wanted to know how to move forward to use their grant.

“We were assured that we could ask for an extension out to 2022,” Seaver told Sutherland.

Seaver was referencing assurances made by DNR’s Rich Germinder, legislative director, and Rebecca McKinstry, real estate manger/assistant general counsel for MSP during a June 8, 2017, meeting. At the meeting, McKinstry and Germinder told the city to suspend their project for a  year.

“Our understanding is that there are eight years from the time award before the funds have to be spent,” McKinstry told city officials in response to concerns that there wouldn’t be enough time to complete the project. 

Sutherland said he thinks the June 2017 meeting is where some of the misunderstanding comes in.

“Whether that was correct information or not, whether that was possible or not, the grant was to expire in 2018,” Sutherland said Nov. 20.

Schaller said she had never received anything that said the grant’s deadline was 2018 and Rost said she did not have paperwork saying the deadline was 2018. Sutherland said the only paperwork he had about the deadline was the letter to the mayor, dated Nov. 19, 2018, stating the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) would not be extending the grant.  

“So the money is gone?” Schaller asked. “So, to save us for future grants, what you are saying ‘is quit asking.’ These letters didn’t do a bit of good. You are saying no body can change that decision. That is what I am hearing from you, Mike.”

Sutherland said the city is not going to be penalized for a future grant based off this project.

“The funding is essentially de-obligated, they’re not going to give us an extension,” Rost said.

The city has been asked twice to delay moving forward with the project. Sutherland said that is because there was an administration change and it was unclear how the state planned to progress with the project.

“During the 2014-16 administration, the intention on what was going to happen with the corridor was going full steam,” he said. “Now they are taking a step back and figuring what is going to be the best move forward.”

Schaller told Sutherland and Rost that it was MSP  officials that visited the city, walked the railbed to the park with then alderman Richard Huse, and asked that the scope of the grant be changed.

“The original grant awarded to the city was to have the trail alongside the tracks,” Schaller said. “That’s when they asked Richard to rewrite the grant to have the trail on top of the railbed.”

Schaller said the city was in the process of ordering the rock at that time.

Rost, an MSP section chief, said she had reviewed the correspondence from the city and saw where the city had re-written the grant but stopped short of saying she did not have records of MSP requesting the scope of the project be changed.

Schaller asked why State Parks, as a grant administrator, didn’t advise the city that the project would not meet the deadline.

“Why did they not come back to the city of Belle and say ‘we want you to rewrite your grant because there is no way you are going to be able to complete this project on the railbed?” Schaller asked. 

The original grant was over 40 pages long and the city paid both Meramec Regional Planning Commission and a private grant writer to help. Additionally, they have volunteer hours dedicated to the 20 percent in-kind match complete.

“Why didn’t someone come to us and say ‘look, we don’t want you to lose that money, so use it to build another trail in the community?’” Schaller asked. She added the city had an alternative plan. “We are at the point now, what do we do?”

MSP receives 7 percent of the total grant allotments each year for administering the grants.

Sutherland said it has been a challenge due to the circumstance because of the question of what is going to happen with the corridor.

“In no way I think it should be construed that MSP doesn’t want Belle to be successful. But the circumstance of the corridor have created circumstances that are a little bit unprecedented,” Sutherland said. “In the end my hope is that Belle is able to have a successful project, whether it is on the corridor or another location. The current grant application is not the only path forward to that future.”

Sutherland said the city could simply reapply for the same grant with their previous application or for another grant.

Seaver asked for a letter saying the city won’t be penalized on future grant applications for  having to de-obligate the funds. Schaller said that is not her only concern. 

MSP is expected to make a decision on the trail in February 2019.

“That is where I am so disappointed because when you accept the trailbed, you are going to have grant applications coming out your ears,” Schaller said. “For us to get back in the grant round, it is going to be so competitive. We are going to struggle so hard to get another grant because all of these communities asking for grant money.”

Sutherland said yes, but the city’s grant application is already completed and they have something to show for commitment.

“If the decision is made by February, depending on what that decision is…it isn’t like a switch just goes on or off. There is till a lot that has to happen administratively,” Sutherland said.

Seaver said he felt if the city would have gotten a response to their extension request in July, they may have been able to accomplish their secondary trail plan. Why was there no response to the city’s letters?

“That would be on me,” Sutherland said. “The response should have been sooner, and that’s on me. That all goes into why I am sitting here and taking responsibility for that. I know that doesn’t solve anything for you and doesn’t help other than we can figure out someway, through another grant application…”

Sutherland said it is very unusual that he would be talking to city officials about losing their grants. He said the city has a successful grant application that fits most parameters. 

“There is a chance it could be successful again, I can’t make assurances on that. To move forward we have to figure out a solution,” Sutherland said.

The grant de-obligation comes at the heels of another MSP public comment period expiring Nov. 30 where citizens are being asked to voice their views on the MSP system acquiring the 144-mile Rock Island trail. Visit www.surveymonkey.com/r/RILC_InfoMtgs_Fall2018 to submit comments about the trail.