LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — For the past 10 years, the Alliance Recycling Center has been awarded grants by the Nebraska Environmental Trust, which doles out about $20 million a year in state lottery proceeds for environmental projects.
On Thursday, the director of the Alliance recycling program made the seven-hour drive to Lincoln to find out why the center, which employs 15 people and serves a wide area of Nebraska’s Panhandle, had been rejected for $95,000 in funding this year.
Kathryn Worley, the executive director of Keep Alliance Beautiful, got no response to her pleas to Trust Board members to reverse their decision, or at least provide partial funding.
‘Death’ of recycling center
“To lose this money is huge for us. We can’t have a fundraiser of any kind that nets $95,000,” Worley told the Trust Board members. “It could mean the death of our recycling center.”
The rejection of the recycling center grant, after a decade of getting funds, was another indication of how the Trust Board has changed in recent months and how it has changed its approach in awarding grants.
This year, out of 118 applicants for trust grants, only 82 were ruled eligible, a major departure from the past, when only a handful didn’t qualify to be at least scored for grants.
Among those objecting Thursday to the changes was Hod Kosman, a Scottsbluff banker who leads a group that has restored thousands of acres of habitat and helped rebuild a trout stream using private funds and years of grants from the Environmental Trust.
Kosman wrote to express his “total dismay” that the Platte River Basin Environments wasn’t just rejected for funding this year but was declared ineligible for funding.
Gail Yanney of Omaha, a member of the Trust Board when it was first established, asked Trust Board members, “What changed?”
Yanney, who accompanied by her husband, Omaha philanthropist Mike Yanney, said the organization has devolved from a “huge success” that has funded projects in all 93 counties to one that faced a lawsuit, questions of fairness and grant recipients who “hold their tongues” for fear of speaking out.
“Nebraska is in danger of seeing the Trust steer away from the values of conservation, preserving water quality and wildlife and working with farmers and ranchers to protect their land from developers,” Gail Yanney said.
She blamed Gov. Pete Ricketts, who appoints the nine citizen members on the board and hires four of the five state agency directors that serve on the 14-member panel.
“Our current governor seems hell bent on destroying it,” Yanney said.
Governor defends Trust
Ricketts, in the past, has defended the Trust’s grant decisions, including the controversial swap two years ago from a handful of conservation projects to one to install ethanol blender pumps, to aid the corn-based fuel. The blender pump grant was later withdrawn, after the Trust Board was sued for not following proper procedures.
But critics say the ethanol pump swap illustrated how the Trust has shifted from a focus on the environment to seeking to satisfy farm interests.
Eyebrows were raised again recently after the Trust’s grant committee rejected a grant proposal by the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District, in collaboration with the City of Bellevue, to purchase land at the confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers.
The site is viewed as one of the top industrial sites in the Omaha area. Buying it would have opened it up for a large industry while establishing a wildlife refuge and biking trail on adjacent flood-prone areas. But it was deemed ineligible this year, after being funded in 2013 (it had to return the grant when the owner wouldn’t sell the land) and being ranked among the top grants a year ago, only to be rejected by the board at the last minute.
Grants committee recommends
Six members of the Trust’s board serve on the grants committee (see sidebar) and decide which projects are eligible or not. Their votes are not identified by name.
A member of a recently formed watchdog group, the Friends of the Environmental Trust, questioned how the eligibility determinations among those six could vary so widely. One grant reviewer deemed 17% of the applications “ineligible” but another disqualified 75%, said John Bender of Lincoln.
But the recently installed executive director of the Trust, Karl Elmhaeuser, said the 11 criteria on which projects are deemed eligible hasn’t changed.
What has changed, Elmshaeuser said, is the way grants are deemed eligible and ranked. Recent performance reviews of the Trust, he said, found that those rankings were not done in two steps and “were not correctly applied.”
He also said the judging of grants is subjective. “There are no right or wrong answers,” Elmshaeuser said.
To illustrate, he displayed a couple of drawings that could be seen as an old or young woman, or as a duck or a rabbit, and one that showed a picture of the baseball strike zone.
Umpires can change
“Who’s standing behind the plate makes a difference,” Elmshaeuser said, referring to the umpire that calls balls and strikes.
The slide show was no consolation to Worley, who said she was upset that she didn’t learn why her grant was rejected and wasn’t allowed to speak for more than three minutes after driving across the state to plead her case.
“We’ve been good stewards of your money and been accountable,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve changed. We’ve only improved.”
Jeff Kanger, who chaired the grants committee, said the committee decided to recommend grants that only scored 130 points or higher on their ranking. The Alliance projects scored 124.7 points, falling just short. Forty-six other projects also scored too low, including projects by Ducks Unlimited, the University of Nebraska and a North Platte Recycling program.
$3 million not granted
The entire Trust board approved funding for 35 new grants and 36 carryover grants costing $17.1 million. About $3 million in funds were not granted out this year and will be carried over to 2023.
When the Nebraska Examiner asked Kanger, a Lincoln banker, and another member of the grants committee, Quinten Bowen, a Richardson County farmer, exactly why the Alliance Recycling Program wasn’t funded this year, unlike the previous 10 years, they responded that was just how the scoring came out this year.
Elmshaeuser, after the meeting, said that getting grant funding for 10 years doesn’t guarantee getting funding for the 11th year.
Worley, visibly upset, left the Trust Board meeting before it was over to get on the road back to Alliance and because she knew the board wasn’t going to reconsider.
She said she has no idea how her organization will make up the $95,000.
“We’re going to do our best to keep things open,” she said.
Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.