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Nebraska Environmental Trust awards $11.3 million in grants, hopes reforms reduce confusion

Posted at 12:21 PM, Jan 11, 2023

LINCOLN — Months of criticisms against the Nebraska Environmental Trust for its grant decisions fizzled out Tuesday as the board approved $11.3 million for 23 projects.

Of the 81 “legitimate” grant applications the Trust received by its September deadline, 47 applications were deemed eligible — a marked decrease from recent years — and 23 of those were approved Tuesday.

That’s a disbursal of just more than half of the Trust’s approximate $20 million available for aid. The remaining money will stay with the Trust, in its cash fund, but will require legislative approval if it is ever to see the light of day again.

‘Very disappointed’

The board approved the grants 12-1 (a handful were passed 11-1 with Jim Macy, director of the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, and Tim McCoy, director of the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission, abstaining on certain grants their respective agencies are involved with).

Paul Dunn of Omaha, a member of the Nebraska Environmental Trust, listns as the board’s executive director explains the Trust’s finances on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The lone “no” came from Paul Dunn of Omaha, who voted against all of the grants — not because he disapproved of them but because he wanted to give out more funds.

“It’s just that I feel it is a mistake for us not to be deploying more money,” Dunn said at one point during the meeting. “We had applications. We chose to strike out a good number of them, to not even consider them, and then not even to fund them. 

“I’m very disappointed,” he continued.

The Trust’s executive director, Karl Elmshauser, said the funds are like a checkbook, with the Trust authorized to spend $20 million.

“You can’t not allocate funds, but you don’t have to allocate all the funds,” Elmshauser said.

Nearly awarding more funds

McCoy moved to approve 16 more grants, deeming those “average” or “above average” according to how the Trust’s Grants Committee scored the grants.

These grants scored between 30 and 33.17 on a 50-point scale — all greater scores were awarded funding. The requests totaled an additional $6.97 million.

“I struggled with it because … everything we come up with, the cutoff always seems arbitrary to me,” McCoy said.

The motion failed 2-9, with McCoy and Dunn voting in favor and two members abstaining.

Governing policies cause confusion

Sandy Scofield, president of Friends of the Nebraska Environmental Trust, speaks before the Trust concering its grants application process on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Sandy Scofield, the president of the watchdog group Friends of the Nebraska Environmental Trust, said after the meeting that the board’s actions were predictable.

Scofield, a former state senator, said her group “obviously” supports quality grants and financial responsibility but said there is concern the current process is discouraging applicants.

The Trust is undergoing a process to internally update, and clarify, its governing language in Title 137, a process that Scofield hopes will help applicants.

“If you recall, the original intent of this was more to help local and regional groups do things that they couldn’t otherwise do and the state government would not do and should not do,” Scofield told the Trust.

Kyle Kinyoun of Clay Center thanked the board during the meeting for taking time to review proposals and not spend money “foolishly,” as he said has been done in the past.

“I think what happened was a lot of them weren’t good projects because what [the Trust] did was they just spent every penny, that was the whole goal,” Kinyoun said. “I think that you guys have taken the time and actually went over the applicants and have used your best judgment to sit there and filter out the ones that are actually worthy of being funded.”

Trust members nearly rejected a grant request of $70,000 over the definition of the term “regulatory,” one of 13 eligibility requirements grants must meet.

“I bring that up, not that I’m against the project, it’s just following guidelines, making sure we’re crossing our T’s, dotting our I’s,” board member Rod Christen of Steinauer said. “That’s what we’re kind of compelled to do.”

Nebraska Environmental Trust executive director Karl Elmshauser, left, and Chair Mark Quandahl lead a meeting to approve 2023 grant recommendations on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, Lincoln, Neb. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

The grant proposals had been public for months, chair Mark Quandahl of Omaha said, but the last-minute discussion showed there is some confusion — including among board members — over the board’s language.

Clarifying that language could also reduce the number of denied applications, according to Josh Andersen of Edgar, who chairs the committee looking at the Trust’s governing policies.

“We don’t like that. We don’t want that. They don’t want that,” Andersen said, indicating the public. “But part of that is lack of clarity in some of these questions.” 

‘The future generation’ of the Trust

Quandahl said he thought the grants process went well, with the best of the eligible grants obtaining funding, though there’s still room for improvement.

“No matter how well we do things today, we can always strive to do better tomorrow,” Quandahl said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”

Director Elmshauser emphasized that the actions taken by the Trust would set it up for success moving forward.

“We are positioning the Nebraska Environmental Trust for the future generation,” he said. “That is where we’re going.”

A full list of the 2023 grants recommendations is available here. Some of the grants include:

$3.5 million to the Omaha Public Power District and Douglas County for solar energy.$89,000 to the Nebraska Public Power District for an ethanol-powered electric vehicle fast charger.$150,000 to the town of Crawford to purchase 125 side-loader dumpsters.$395,000 to the Sandhills Task Force to for stewardship and conservation of the area.

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: Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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