Funds can’t be advanced to local agencies

Photo courtesy of Okanogan Conservation District The Okanogan Conservation District uses grants to help property owners recover from wildfires. The district expects to build some 45 more fences within the next year for people affected by the Carlton Complex and Okanogan Complex fires.

Photo courtesy of Okanogan Conservation District
The Okanogan Conservation District uses grants to help property owners recover from wildfires. The district expects to build some 45 more fences within the next year for people affected by the Carlton Complex and Okanogan Complex fires.

By Marcy Stamper

State and local conservation districts that assist property owners with recovery after a wildfire or other disaster sometimes struggle to get projects approved and completed before funding expires. In fact, sometimes they have only a few months to get everything completed.

The districts also face limitations because state law requires that only a fraction of the money can be used in advance. Most funds must be paid only to reimburse documented expenses.

A recent review by state auditors underscores this tricky timing issue for such districts.

The auditors cited the Washington State Conservation Commission for providing too much money in advance to the Okanogan Conservation District to help with recovery from the Carlton Complex Fire. The state commission should have waited for an accounting of expenses and then reimbursed the local district, according to the audit, which was released at the end of July.

The auditors’ findings were directed to the state commission, not the Okanogan Conservation District. The findings were part of a regular audit of the commission’s internal controls and compliance with its own policies from 2011 through 2015.

The rebuke was included in a management letter, which conveys matters of concern to agency officials and is the intermediate of three levels of concern.

The auditors found that the state commission had advanced almost $766,000 in grant funding to the Okanogan Conservation District in 2015 to avoid losing the funds at the end of the biennium in June 2015. The cash advance was not made in accordance with the commission’s policy, which is to reimburse local districts for expenses only after they have been incurred.

As long as they have a policy and track disbursement, it would be likely to be seen as adequate, said Bryson Bristol, audit manager for Team Olympia with the Washington State Auditor.

The $766,000 is part of $2.7 million appropriated by the Legislature for the Okanogan district to use for Carlton Complex fire-recovery projects, primarily fencing and erosion control, according to Craig Nelson, manager of the Okanogan Conservation District.

Cash advances can be used to purchase equipment so a project can get underway, but all other expenses must be billed after the fact, said Nelson.

Moreover, the district can only bill for work that has been completed and inspected by district staff by the end of the corresponding biennium.

The 2015 appropriation gave the state commission only three months to get money to local districts for projects on the ground, said Shana Joy, Puget Sound regional manager and policy assistant for the commission. But to comply with a 2014 gubernatorial proclamation directing all state agencies to assist fire-affected regions with recovery, the commission advanced a bigger share of the money to the Okanogan Conservation District than usual.

“We felt we were justified in the decision we made,” said Joy.

Policy revision

The Conservation Commission is revising its policy to allow additional advance funding in an emergency, said Joy. The auditors look only at whether actions complied with agency policy and procedure, but don’t comment on the rationale behind an action, she said.

“It’s pretty frustrating — to put it bluntly — based on the fact that the state has a fiscal year that begins on July 1,” said Nelson. “It can be a frustration even outside of an emergency. But it’s doubly frustrating in a major disaster like we had, trying to get people back on their feet.”

Between seasonal and permitting issues, the local district’s hands are often tied. If land is under snow, the district can’t do a cultural-resource evaluation to ensure that work will not harm archaeological sites. Even if a project is approved and money is available, they can’t install fencing in frozen ground — making the window even tighter, said Nelson.

The auditors also found that the state commission hadn’t made sure the funds it gave the district had been used properly because the commission didn’t have monthly vouchers for all expenditures. The state commission provided the money up front and told the local district to keep track of expenses, said Nelson. The commission has taken steps to ensure the remaining allocation will be monitored, according to the audit.

The commission told the auditors that the monitoring issue was also due to a vacancy in the director of budget, accounting and grant services. Those job functions have been reorganized and the positions are now filled, said Joy.

Two years of funding

The Legislature appropriated $2.7 million in the 2015 supplemental budget specifically for Carlton Complex Fire recovery — $1.16 million in state funds and $1.54 million in federal funds. Any state money that wasn’t spent by June 2015 went back into the state’s account, according to a Legislative staffer. The federal money had somewhat different rules.

The local district tried to get all the projects done before the appropriation expired, but wasn’t able to because it could not get all the necessary permits in time, said Nelson. A cultural-resource analysis typically takes between 60 and 90 days, he said.

In 2016, the Legislature appropriated $6.8 million in the supplemental budget for fire recovery across the state, plus another $1 million for Firewise projects. The money was also earmarked for the conservation commission to distribute to local districts, but was not restricted to particular counties or fires. Those funds are available longer, until the next two-year cycle ends in June 2017.

Because Washington is on a two-year cycle, Legislative appropriations must be spent by the end of a biennium. When money is included in a supplemental budget, it also must be used by the end of that biennium, according to the legislative staffer.

Outreach to owners

The Okanogan Conservation District is still contacting landowners who may be eligible for fencing, seeding and watershed protection, said Nelson.

Despite the tight timeline, the district completed 11 fencing projects by the 2015 deadline — four deer fences to protect orchards and seven to keep livestock out of streams and other critical areas, according to Terri Williams, a conservation planner with the Okanogan district. They also did two other fencing projects using a different grant.

But another 19 property owners who had been interested in fencing (15 for deer/orchards and four for livestock/critical areas) did not get help through the district. Williams said that could be because of time constraints or because the people received funding from another source or decided to pay for the work themselves.

Now that it has the 2016 round of funding, the local district has confirmed 12 more fencing projects and expects to help erect 45 fences altogether before next year’s deadline, said Williams.

The Conservation District started with 450 requests for assistance from people affected by both the Carlton and Okanogan complex fires. About 200 required only technical assistance and others got help through another grant program. The current funding should allow the district to offer assistance to everyone left on the list (which includes the fencing, irrigation repairs and hazardous-tree removal), a total of 70 to 80 more property owners, said Williams.

The mismatch between the budget cycle and the weather affects a lot of the conservation district’s work.

“This is actually a really normal problem for us,” said Williams. “For example, we get money in July but, after a two-month cultural-resource study, it’s October, too late to start projects. It really blocks us from getting anything done if the timelines don’t match up. We do the best we can.

“My greatest wish in the world is that all these agencies had an emergency pot that could be used at any time,” she said.