Smoky Mountain News, written by Holly Kays

A new grant program approved by a unanimous vote from the Sylva Board of Commissioners Sept. 24 will allocate $20,000 to help nonprofit organizations better serve Sylva residents during the pandemic.

“We tried to keep it very simple,” said Interim Town Manager Mike Morgan. “Just basically tell us what you want to do with the money and then we could go through the process of approving the grants.”

The program will provide grants capped at $5,000 to assist with programs related to food insecurity, public health measures, medical access, supplies for nonprofits, emergency needs and other COVID-related expenses. The town will award the funds on a first-come, first-serve basis but will not vote on any applications prior to the board’s Oct. 22 meeting. While it can award grants of up to $5,000, it may restrict the grants to smaller amounts if a large number of organizations apply.

Commissioner David Nestler first floated the idea for the program Aug. 13 when Morgan presented his plan for spending the CARES Act money. Sylva received $411,583 from the program, most of which — $391,846 — will reimburse the town for dollars it spent on police officer salaries between May and August.

“This is money we could be putting back into our community in a time like this, instead of our general fund, so I wanted to see what options were available to us there,” Nestler said to begin the Aug. 13 discussion.

There are clear rules as to how CARES Act money can and cannot be used, and those rules would likely have prevented the town from directly allocating the money to a grant program. However, funding public safety personnel during the pandemic is an acceptable use, and because the town had already paid out police salaries for the timeframe in question, the money rolled back into the general fund, meaning that it is no longer subject to any restrictions other than those that apply to any other town expenditure.

Commissioner Mary Gelbaugh voiced support for the program but said she believed the town could do even more to help its nonprofits.

“It’s a little over $400,000 that we were given, and I was thinking more along the lines of tithing of a 10 percent,” she said. “I don’t know if our budget could support a 10 percent tithe of this money, but that would bring it more at $40,000.”

Additionally, she said, a lower cap on awards might be good in order to allow more nonprofits and more projects to benefit.

“I would like to see us broaden our spectrum on how many people could apply, even if that meant a lesser number for those few awarded,” she said.

Mayor Lynda Sossamon pointed out that in the past, the town’s contributions to nonprofit organizations have maxed out at $1,000. However, Nestler said, he’d rather keep the larger cap because it gives the town more flexibility in granting awards.

“It seems to me when organizations discuss having these sorts of grants — not in a time of crisis — we tend to overestimate the number of people that are going to apply to it and sort of bootstrap people by the amount they can’t apply for and making it less worth it for these nonprofits to apply,” he said. “Having a $5,000 max, I think that’s OK. It doesn’t mean we have to approve $5,000.”

As to the $20,000 number, Morgan allowed that it was mostly a “random number” he’d put in the resolution for discussion purposes but stated that, while it’s ultimately up to the board how much they want to allocate, he wouldn’t recommend going higher than $20,000.

“We have some tremendous expenses coming upon the town, especially with the Allen Street slide project,” said Morgan. “That’s going to be a major, major hit to the town budget. But then again we’re trying to provide a number that would make it worthwhile for a nonprofit to go through the grant process.”

Morgan was referring to the cost of repairing a landslide that has resulted in the closure of Allen Street. He and Public Works Director Jake Scott are currently working on putting together repair estimates, but they expect the cost to exceed $500,000, and that expense is not accounted for in the budget commissioners approved in June.

Ultimately, commissioners heeded Morgan’s concerns.

“I think that even though that ($20,000) number was pulled out of the air, I think that’s a solid number for us to start to work with,” said Commissioner Greg McPherson. “Maybe this could go to more later.”

Sylva received its CARES Act funding via Jackson County, which received it from the state, which received it from the federal government. The federal CARES Act established the Coronavirus Relief Fund, which provided the state with $4.067 billion in funding. Of that, $300 million was sent to the counties, each of which were required to allocate at least 25 percent of their funding to municipalities within the county.

Jackson County received $1.8 million, of which $454,408 must go to municipalities. Jackson County decided to allocate the funding with the same formula it uses to disperse sales tax receipts, meaning that Sylva received most of the money. However, Dillsboro received $25,766, Webster got $6,323 and Highlands — which is partially located in Jackson County but sits mainly in Macon County — was allocated $1,000 in a Sept. 15 vote of County Commissioners.

 Sylva’s grant program is open to 501c3, 501c4 and 501c6 organizations that serve Sylva residents. For more information, call the town at 828.586.2719.