GREAT FALLS- The funding for two Great Falls non-profit organizations has been called into question by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The funding for both Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art and NeighborWorks Great Falls has been denied or delayed, due to concerns over conflicts of interest.
Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art will not receive the almost $28,000 previously approved to them through a community development block grant.
According to museum officials, the grant would have renovated a bathroom for handicap accessibility in the building’s lower level.
“The doorway doesn’t allow wheelchair accessibility, doesn’t allow walker accessibility,” Paris Gibson Square Board Chairman Nancy Zadick said. “If someone of the male gender needs to visit the lavatory, they have to traverse the entire length of the building and go upstairs. If you’re a female, you’ve got to go twice as far.”
The refusal from HUD adds to an already complicated awarding process over the past year.
The Square’s funding request, along with all other Public Facilities projects, was evaluated twice before by the Community Development Council (CDC), a volunteer group appointed by the Planning and Community Development Department.
Community member concerns over a conflict of interest and a technicality in the initial review process forced the council to redo the process.
The grants are distributed through the city’s CDBG Program, which is annually funded through HUD.
Great Falls is one of three entitlement cities in Montana that receives the federal funds to help low-to-moderate-income residents and address community development needs. The other two cities are Missoula and Billings.
Nearly $710,000 was allocated to the program this year, and community organizations could then apply for grants in November.
City officials said complications started after the Square’s initial funding request for the bathroom was denied by the CDC.
Tracy Houck, a City Commissioner and Executive Director of the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, sent a formal letter expressing the organization’s disappointment and raised concerns over an individual who was on the CDC and had been fired from the Square.
Sara Sexe, the City Attorney for Great Falls, said the city didn’t become aware of the relationship between the individual and the Square until after the initial review process.
“Had we known about it, we likely would have talked to the Chair and said it’s best to, because of the appearance of a potential conflict, that you should recuse yourself from participation and voting in the allocation recommendations that would have gone to the commission for final approval,” Sexe said.
She added that there was also an initial procedural issue with the CDC and City Commissioner Fred Burow that caused the panel to reevaluate funding presentations.
“We indicated that their presentations should be the same that they had done previously to do as clean a redo as we possibly could,” Sexe said. “Before we went through the process, we talked with the HUD representative and based upon that conversation, believed that we were doing the right thing in terms of the redo. We were trying to keep it as clean as possible and go through that route.”
After all Public Facilities projects were heard again, the CDC reversed their original decision and recommended Paris Gibson for funding.
Both the individual from the CDC and Commissioner Houck recused themselves from the redo process. City Commissioners then accepted the public facilities portion of the CDBG Action Plan.
However, HUD still refused the allocation for Paris Gibson Square due to Commissioner Houck’s response after initially being denied the funding.
“From the time the conflict came, in terms of the letter being written by her forward, they (HUD) thought that that created the appearance of a conflict, or an actual conflict that needed to be addressed and the only way that they told us to address that is to indicate that they are ineligible for funding for that project this year,” Sexe said.
Paris Gibson Square officials said they were saddened but not surprised to hear they would not receive the grant this year.
“Somehow the process got off track for various reasons, it wasn’t just one, it was various, and that couldn’t be overlooked by HUD,” Paris Gibson Square Board Chairman Nancy Zadick said.
Zadick added she wasn’t chairman at the time of the conflict but believes the museum did what it thought was best at the moment.
“I think there was a time restraint under which the executive director (Houck) was operating, our Chair was out of the city at that time, so there were some limitations on her,” she said. “I think she (Houck) tried to make the best decision she could for the Square, but it got complicated because of her position with the city.”
Zadick also said their proposal to upgrade the downstairs bathroom would have benefited nearly 500 people with physical disabilities who come through the Square each year.
“We’re sad that the project fell victim to the process and that in my opinion is what happened,” Zadick said. “I think the project is very worthwhile, worthy of the CDBG grant monies.”
Paris Gibson Square has a contract with the Kennedy Center in Massachusetts to provide handicap access in their facilities.
Zadick added they are still committed to providing a bathroom that meets the needs of everyone who comes through their doors.
“It’s sad that a bathroom became such a hot topic in our city, I do hope that the city determines a better way to do it next time, we are all for that, we’re certainly not giving up on redoing this bathroom,” Zadick said.
According to Sexe, the grant money denied to the Square will go back into the city’s CDBG fund to be reallocated in the future.
Along with the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, NeighborWorks Great Falls, which works to improve declining neighborhoods by developing and advocating quality affordable housing, is also facing issues regarding CDBG funding.
Sexe said HUD requested additional information from the city after the organization was previously approved for $82,000.
A representative from the Regional HUD office in Denver said the city initially came to them with concerns over CBDG compliance.
According to Public Affairs Specialist Christine Baumann, the agency is providing technical assistance while the city looks into a potential conflict of interest.
She said inspections like these are not uncommon as grantees call the Regional Office frequently inquiring about potential issues.
“The last thing we want to do is ask for money back because these funds are so crucial to the community, but our number one priority is compliance,” Baumann said.
NeighborWorks Great Falls came into question after concerns arose over the relationship between City Commissioner Bill Bronson and the agency. Bronson’s wife, Carol Bronson, works for NeighborWorks Great Falls.
HUD is also reviewing the organization’s history to see if there is a connection between Carol Bronson and past CDBG funds awarded.
NeighborWorks Great Falls officials said they feel there is no conflict of interest.
Executive Director Sheila Rice said Bronson’s wife is a part of Community Engagement, a separate department from Construction, which is where the CDBG grant would be used.
Rice added Bronson has nothing to do with writing or accepting the CDBG grant and that the organization has never had services or money flow between the two departments.
“We do all fund accounting, so the accounts for those two organizations sections are separate,” Rice said.
Rice added they are hopeful the funds will be released after all information has been collected but are cooperating fully with the city and HUD in the meantime.
According to Baumann, the ultimate decision on whether or not the funds will be returned to NeighborWorks Great Falls rests with the city.
The Planning and Community Development Department said they would recommend changes to the CDBG Program and the way funds are dispersed in the future.
According to Craig Raymond, Director of Planning and Community Development for Great Falls, the Department also recommended appointing an ethics committee to oversee issues that come up regarding City Commission.
“Pretty significantly deal with the conflict of interest issues that arose this year and hopefully resolve those,” Raymond said.
According to Sexe, the two funding issues are the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ when it comes to evaluating ethical considerations and potential conflicts of interest in the city.
She hopes any changes to the City Commission will only benefit future situations where potential conflicts of interest are avoided.
“Being able to appropriately vet a person’s outside interest, as compared to their public duties, is what we want to try to do as much as possible,” she said.