The Right Strategy
By Harry L. Wyant Jr.
One way to afford new projects is to get serious about seeking grants. this means working closely woth grant professionals.
In New Jersey, every municipality from the largest city to the smallest borough is constantly looking for creative ways to fund new projects and ongoing infrastructure maintenance. Property taxes, an increasingly sensitive political issue with which elected officials are all too familiar, continue to climb. At the same time, state and county aid is dwindling as the constitutional requirement of a balanced budget has forced the Governor and Legislature to make tough fiscal decisions.
While it is imperative that municipalities maintain existing infrastructure, essential services and community assets like parks, there is always a laundry list of “need to have” and “nice to have” projects that would benefit constituents. We are under pressure to reign in spending to keep taxes under control even as local residents continue to request funding for special projects.
How can these conflicting priorities be satisfied? One way to set our sights on solutions is by developing partnerships with outside experts who can help identify and prioritize a community’s funding needs, and also help to pinpoint alternative funding sources. Since every community in New Jersey is feeling the need to tighten its belt, right now it’s especially important to tap into new sources of funding.
Fortunately, there are many public and non-profit funding sources to which municipalities can turn for assistance. There are grants and low-interest loans that can be used for various purposes like open space and historic preservation, urban revitalization, brownfield remediation and school construction. The trick is to know where to look and how to exhaust every opportunity.
As dedicated leaders, we are responsible for serving and satisfying our constituents as well as resolving the needs of multiple municipal departments. In addition, most of us have our own visions of what our municipalities can become. What distinguishes one leader from another is his or her ability to make things happen. Often those who are adept at turning dreams into reality recognize the importance of hiring consultants who understand the business of municipal engineering. This includes identifying and successfully pursuing alternative funding sources.
Achieving a vision requires a dedicated team with a clear strategy. Consultants hired to assist mayors in achieving their visions provide an invaluable source of expertise that can make these plans a reality. However, they need to be more than just subject matter experts; they have to be business partners too.
One necessity that cannot be overlooked is the synergy between the mayor, municipal decision makers, stakeholders, engineers, planners and grants professionals. Too often, consultants fail to capitalize on this synergy; they simply submit agency-generated lists of available grants as solutions to a municipality’s funding needs. The information provided is rarely customized, and it does not work with a municipality’s particular strategy because the consultants are not working together with town officials.
On the other hand, when consultants are acting as a municipality’s business partners, they can develop a coordinated strategy for allocating manpower and expertise, all in an effort to foster a truly valuable exchange of information. In this type of partnership, information can be used immediately to implement a proactive, strategic grants management program to address the specific goals of the municipality. The program will consider the budget allocated for projects, agencies that offer grant assistance, planned projects that qualify for grant dollars, application deadlines, grant tracking, reimbursement and project closeout. This better aligns the municipality’s immediate needs with long-term growth plans and funding resources.
A consulting team can research, inventory and assess all grant funding programs available to the community from county, state, federal, non-profit and private funding sources. With this kind of help, the municipality can apply for all of the available funding assistance opportunities both for capital improvement projects as well as for social programs the municipality offers or would consider offering. The initial investment made in this type of arrangement can result in a significant return. By tapping into previously overlooked funding sources, municipalities can better control their tax bases, while at the same time offering quality programs and facilities.
The first step is to develop a master plan for grants management based on your current municipal issues. This is most successful when a rapport is established with decision-makers at all levels of municipal government—including the Administrator, the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief of Police, the Fire Chief, the Director of Public Works as well as Land Use Boards, Recreation Commissioners, Open Space and Environmental Commissions, the Tax Assessor and other community groups. There are eight steps to creating a comprehensive plan:
• Research all available databases to identify suitable assistance programs that are available.
• Analyze programs to determine project objectives and uses, eligibility requirements and application procedures.
• Establish notification procedures, including deadlines and milestones, action the municipality must take, and a schedule to track the calendars of various funding programs.
• Create a “who’s-who” contact list that includes key individuals within the municipality as well as agency leads from the various non-profit and government sources being pursued.
• Verify with target agencies your eligibility, the availability of funds, application deadlines and procedures, and other administrative details.
• Complete the application.
• Track the application and secure approval through the review process.
• Conduct all necessary steps related to grant administration and closeout.
A successful strategic grant program is one that is well prepared and thoughtfully planned, and one that represents the municipality’s strong commitment to progress.
In addition to capital improvements, grant funding is also available to help offset the cost of maintaining utility services like water, sewer and storm water, disaster relief, revitalization and beautification initiatives, park design and development, community and regional planning, and environmental assessment and remediation. Additional funding can also be found for “softer” items like education, recycling, pedestrian walkways and cross-ways, bikeways and police safety equipment.
Recognizing both fiscal responsibility and limited resources, and to better serve their municipal clients, a few multi-disciplinary engineering and consulting firms have established dedicated, sole-source grants departments. Their grants management teams develop strategic grants management programs that focus on matching available grant funding from all sources with municipal initiatives.
Schoor DePalma, one of the state’s leading engineering and consulting firms, has been instrumental in guiding Phillipsburg through the grant process by offering this kind of service.
Turning a mayor’s vision into a reality is not a simple task. Success depends upon the team assembled to develop and execute the plan. Hiring a business partner who understands both the vision and the business of municipal engineering is a critical step along the path to positive change for a community.
Having a strategic master plan for grants can help elected officials demonstrate fiscal responsibility to residents, many of whom probably believe that aggressive grant pursuit is a solid step in curbing or cutting taxes.
The unfortunate reality is that New Jersey’s fiscal climate is unlikely to improve any time soon. This makes the active seeking of grant monies all the more important. If you know where to look, you may be able to find innovative sources of grant funding. Teaming up with a professional engineering and consulting firm that has extensive experience in this field can be instrumental in moving projects from your “wish list” to reality.
Harry L. Wyant Jr. is the Mayor of Phillipsburg, a community of 15,000 people located in Warren County.
Article published in February 2007, New Jersey Municipalities