Local Governments Tackle Federal Grant Process

The federal stimulus money is supposed to pump billions of dollars into the economy. As police departments and small towns apply for money, they are finding themselves in closer contact with the federal government. Local and county governments are learning how to deal with the sprawling federal grant process.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The federal stimulus money is intended to pump nearly $790 billion into the economy. And as police departments and small towns apply for money, they're finding themselves in closer contact with the federal government. But as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, many local governments are still learning how to deal with the unwieldy process of applying for federal funds.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Elizabeth Trice says right now stimulus money is her number one priority. She's the grants coordinator for Cumberland County, Maine.

Ms. ELIZABETH TRICE (Grants Coordinator): My boss has said essentially go out there and see if there's anything we can apply for.

BLAIR: So Trice is spending a lot of time on Grants.gov, the federal government site where guidelines for dozens of different stimulus grants are posted. She says it's pretty challenging to use.

Ms. TRICE: It'd be nice if there was something that said these are the competitive grants that are available through the stimulus and, you know, or maybe to have a searchable site that says: What entity are you? Are you a non-profit? Are you a unit of government? And then you could say: Please show me all of the grants that I'm eligible to actually apply for.

BLAIR: In Charlotte, North Carolina, Margaret Stark is a grants consultant who specializes in law enforcement. These days she's helping police departments in small towns and rural areas apply for stimulus funds.

Ms. MARGARET STARK (Grants Consultant): I know that departments across the United States are laying off officers. I talked with one about a month ago that said they just laid off 40 more officers.

BLAIR: For police officers applying for a federal grant for the first time, Margaret Stark tries to walk them through the sometimes daunting process. She tells them to follow the guidelines to the letter, be clear about what they need in the limited space available, and to make it easy for reviewers to follow.

Ms. STARK: You don't want them to have to flip back pages to say: Where were these guys from? What was their population? So you want them to read start to finish.

BLAIR: Is the brevity part a challenge?

Ms. STARK: Not usually, especially not for law enforcement officers. They're used to writing incident reports. They're used just the facts, ma'am.

BLAIR: The facts of the stimulus can be mind-boggling, says Valerie Brown. Last week, she and hundreds of other county and city officials from around the country tried to sort it out at the White House Recovery and Reinvestment Act Implementation Conference in Washington. Brown, a supervisor for Sonoma County, California, says it went from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with less than an hour for lunch.

Ms. VALERIE BROWN (National Association of Counties): During this massive meeting and exposure to all this information, you see throughout the audience people with their BlackBerry's texting people back at home. Now, did you send in a grant for this? Did you know that this money was available here? Here's a pocket over here you might want to try.

BLAIR: Valerie Brown is also the president-elect of the National Association of Counties. She says this was the first time in her memory so many local officials were invited to a conference sponsored by the White House.

Ms. BROWN: I've been in government for about 15 years. I don't remember a time that it's been this exciting, that there's actually been this wonderful partnership between the federal government and local government and that we are working on the same page with them and that they are drawing us in.

BLAIR: That partnership, says Brown, needs to work, since there is still an overwhelming amount of stimulus information for both local and federal officials to sort out.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.

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