County offers to shift funds

STEUBENVILLE – Jefferson County commissioners have offered to shift about $40,000 into a Revolving Loan Fund account to keep the U.S. Economic Development Administration from terminating the program.

Jeannette Tamayo, USEDA regional director, notified former Progress Alliance RLF Administrator Kim Cline-DeLuca last week that the county’s program had been suspended for insufficient local matching dollars and because the Community Improvement Corp. and Progress Alliance had disbanded and no other organization had assumed the obligations and liabilities of the organization.

Tamayo said local officials have just 14 days to submit a plan for complying with EDA’s rules or risk termination. That clocked started ticking Feb. 27, when the letter was dated.

Until the situation is resolved, the program administrator can do nothing but accept RLF loan repayments.

On Wednesday, Commissioners Tom Graham and Dave Maple spent nearly two hours closeted with Cline-DeLuca, now representing the Jefferson County Port Authority; Ohio Mid-Eastern Government Association Executive Director Greg DiDonato and RLF Administrator Lolly Ravak; and an assortment of city and county officials, including Jefferson Regional Planning Commission Director and Steubenville Mayor Domenick Mucci and Steubenville Urban Projects Director Chris Petrossi, to figure out what must be done.

County leaders had hoped to have OMEGA administer their RLF program. The organization already oversees an RLF program for its eight-county service area.

Graham said the problems predated the passing of the economic development torch from CIC/Progress Alliance to the Jefferson County Port Authority.

Graham said the county’s RLF program “wasn’t OK even when the CIC had it.”

“That’s important,” he said. “We don’t want to create the impression that CIC went defunct and then the problems emerged. It’s been a problem for more than a year … somebody knew it was an ongoing problem.”

But others at the meeting pointed out the program fell out of compliance with EDA program requirements because it had followed a directive from the state of Ohio, which they have in writing, ordering them to use state funds or risk losing them, a situation even they said was confusing.

“We have a letter from the state telling us to use it or they were going to recapture (state funds),” Mucci said, and Cline-Deluca said “state and federal government are not working cohesively with this program.”

Maple said the RLF had been “an underutilized tool” for some time, with few entrepreneurs taking advantage of the program.

“The question is, do we really need it as a tool?” he said.

Maple, though, said he was reluctant to allow USEDA to terminate the program because that might be construed as a black mark on the county’s record and potentially impact future grant applications. Rather than see that happen, he and Graham said they’d prefer to bring the matching fund levels into compliance and then transition the program into OMEGA’s hands – preferably with that organization merely picking up where CIC left off. Failing that, OMEGA would have to apply for Jefferson County’s RLF grants, a much more complicated process.

USEDA Economic Development Specialist Catherine Canavan, contacted by phone minutes before the meeting ended, told the group she could offer no guarantees, but the willingness of the commissioners to move money into the account and designate OMEGA as its administrator “is moving us in the right direction,” though additional documentation would likely be needed.

She said moving funds into the account “would at least allow you to move forward and remove the notice of suspension.”

“Because there’s been a dissolution of the grantee, there probably will be additional paperwork, steps to be taken, in order for OMEGA to go through the process,” she added.

After the meeting, Graham said no action will be taken until they get the go-ahead from USEDA.

“We will have to move money over, but that won’t be until we get approval by the feds. Once it’s approved, we’ll do what we need to do on the floor,” he said.

And if it’s approved, he and Maple said the county’s RLF program will be stronger than ever, since applicants would also have access to OMEGA’s 10-county resources.

“It’s a great solution if it goes through,” Graham said. “OMEGA can handle our program and have the 10-county program at the same time. That makes us stronger, gives us access to a bigger pool of money.”