Grant writing fees draw objections

Kelli West accepted a City proclamation declaring May 2-8 National Travel and Tourism Week in Natchitoches. West is marketing and communications director of the Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau. West said Natchitoches is seeing the return of visitors after COVID-19 at a rate greater than many cities in the state. According to the proclamation, the visitors to the parish produced nearly $110 million in spending in 2019, an increase of 5 percent over 2018 and generated $13.7 million in state and local taxes. Visitor spending in the parish created $39.4 million in direct earnings and 1,430 direct jobs in 2019. From left are Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr., West and Councilperson-at-Large Betty Sawyer-Smith.

Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr. wants to increase the City’s efforts to secure grant money and encouraged such action at the City Council meeting Monday. In a divided vote, the council adopted an ordinance to enter an agreement with Merchant McIntyre and Associates LLC, grant writing consultants. The ordinance calls for the City to pay $7,500 per month for three months with an option to renew the contract for one year. When the ordinance was introduced at the April 12 meeting, Williams said the Washington, D.C., firm is expert in securing federal grants and can secure from six to eight times more than the City’s annual investment.

This article published in the Thursday, April 29, 2021, print edition

He said checks by staff found the firm to have excellent references. He learned about the firm from Natchitoches Regional Medical Center (NRMC) CEO Kirk Soileau. At the meeting Monday, Soileau said the firm has assisted in securing $9 million in grants “on the table” for the hospital including a $3 million grant to build a clinic in Robeline and a $350,000 telehealth grant.

The firm has applied for a $2.2 million grant for recruiting and education of nurses and a $275,000 EMS grant. He said the firm is knowledgeable, extremely accessible and knows the government format required for grants. Williams said the City must find additional revenue from grants if there are to be improvements to streets and drainage since next year’s budget is 8 percent less than the current year.

But the ordinance met with some resistance.

Councilperson-at-Large Betty Sawyer-Smith said there are grant-writing agencies that charge no fees and the City is set to receive $6 million in COVID-19 relief money even if there is a budget shortfall. Sawyer-Smith said that the City has a grant writer, Nicole Gray, who is being paid $32,000 a year for a part-time job. Gray started April 5 as the community organizer and grants manager. Sawyer-Smith said she did not see the logic of paying Gray that amount of money when there is no additional money for police officers, nor paying Merchant McIntyre & Associates $7,500 a month for three months.

Based on a 20 hour-week, Gray will make $30 per hour compared to police officers whose average starting pay is $14 per hour. “The point is, I don’t think we need to pay them $7,500 when we have other issues…where will the money come from?” Sawyer-Smith asked.

Williams persisted in saying that the firm had secured large amounts of money such as $14.1 million for a greenway in Lexington, Ky., $12.9 million for streetscape improvements in Pompano, Fla., $27 million for wastewater structure in Williamsport, Va., and more. He said that NRMC has tripled its investment in Merchant McIntyre & Associates.

Councilpersons Eddie Harrington and Dale Nielsen also questioned paying the firm that monthly $7,500 even though the City can opt out after three months. Harrington said there were grant writers who worked on a contingency basis. When the vote came, Nielsen and Sawyer-Smith voted no with Harrington, Rosemary Elie and Chris Petite voting yes. Harrington was reluctant to vote yes but said the agreement with Merchant McIntyre & Associates could be terminated after three months and he felt the City had a good chance of getting Federal grants because of President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure program.

The council got an informal report on progress at Hopeville Apartments on Second Street. Architect Chris Ainsworth said plans were submitted Feb. 2 to the State Fire Marshal who responded in mid-March. Plans for a community building and restrooms on the northeast corner of the property must be resubmitted.

On March 25, contractors met with civil engineers about a retaining wall that must be replaced and that is now in the design phase. The sprinkler system will require a 60 foot, 6-inch water line. That will affect the budget although it was approved by investors. Cleanup is underway on the property. He expects to provide a full set of plans to the City by June 1. It will take 60-90 days after that for building to start. The construction will be in phases with an estimated completion date of one year. There will be 57 parking spaces for the 40, one-bedroom units.

Director of Planning and Zoning Shontrell Roque told Ainsworth that the city must review changes to the exterior. He said the outside will remain the same and the balconies will be replaced. Ainsworth said he will present a formal report of his remarks to City Attorney Alex Washington.

Ben Barron spoke about the Natchitoches Historic Foundation plan to address moving the Roque House on the riverbank. That work is outlined in an ordinance the council adopted that approves paying the foundation $750 monthly for use of the Roque House through a cooperative endeavor agreement. The foundation is compiling the history of the structure that was built in 1803 by a freed man of color for his family, a significant historical event. He expects the project to be completed in October of 2022.

It will include turning the house toward Cane River, moving it out of the flood plain, building bathrooms, a staging area for electrical outlets and a driveway leading to Beau Jardin. The council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance. Another ordinance adopted granted the right for Canterra Networks to operate a transmission cable that will increase broadband in the City. The cable is connected to one business, a local bank. The company must apply for permits before installing utility boxes.

The final vote was on an ordinance to award the bid to DSW Construction LLC in the amount of $557,775 for restrooms and playground equipment at Parc Natchitoches. Two sets of play equipment will be installed near the restrooms on the left near the entrance and one set will be near the batting cages.

Three ordinances were introduced and will be voted on at the next meeting.

The first was granting a franchise to Cane River Paddle & Pedal Sports LLC and its managers Gerrard Kiefer and Julia Coleman-Kiefer.

The second was adopting millage rates for 2021.They are public safety tax 10 mills; general alimony tax 7.030 mills; for a total of 17.030. The ordinance was to authorize the City to levy the taxes that were rolled forward last year.

The council adopted an ordinance that authorized the refinancing of revenue bonds issued to pay for Parc Natchitoches. The council gave permission for the refinancing to take place at a previous meeting but an ordinance was required to move forward. The action should save the City $290,000 with an interest rate of 3.29 percent, down from 3.70 percent.

The remaining business dealt with the following resolutions that were adopted:

•Authorized advertising for bids for runway and taxiway at Natchitoches Regional Airport. The $3 million project will be 95% paid for by FAA and 4% by DOTD.

•Authorized change order No. 1 for $8,598 for water treatment plant renovation

•Change order #5 from Regional Construction for street rehabilitation for $584

•Accept grant from FAA to airport for $13,000 for coronavirus relief

•Named Garrett Anderson to fill unexpired term of Tom Matuscha on Mayor’s Health and Fitness Council

There will be a City budget public hearing Monday, May 10 at 4:30 p.m., in council chambers. The council meeting will follow at 5:30 p.m., with a pre-meeting at 5 p.m.