07/17/17 — Grant match not in state budget

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Grant match not in state budget

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 17, 2017 5:50 AM

Funding for the $5 million Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery is not the only military issue to be slighted in the Republican-controlled General Assembly's budget.

According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, lawmakers appear to have failed as well to provide the state's dollar-for-dollar match for a $9.2 million grant designed to utilize buffers to protect the state's military bases from encroaching development.

Legislators did both despite spending much time this past session talking about the need to protect the state's military installations.

The argument of protecting the bases was used as well to impose a moratorium on development of new wind energy facilities.

And in both cases legislative leaders said money was not requested for either the cemetery or the match -- claims discounted by Larry D. Hall, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, concerning the cemetery, and by Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler concerning the grant for the buffer program.

Both could be costly.

Failure to provide the match for the grant could cost the state millions in lost funding as well.

Not funding to maintain the cemetery would have caused the state to have to repay the $5 million in federal money used to build it.

However, before the session adjourned legislators approved an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Don Davis, D-Snow Hill, prohibiting the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs from closing any state-owned veterans' cemeteries, while continuing to operate and maintain the current level of operations at each of those cemeteries.

It did not appropriate any funding but did require that the state Office of Budget and Management realign the department's base budget for the 2017-2019 fiscal biennium to increase receipts and include the operational costs of the Eastern Carolina State Veterans Cemetery.

In May, Troxler announced that North Carolina had beat out nine other states to win the $9.2 million federal Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Challenge, which is operated by the Department of Defense's Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration Program.

It was announced at that time that the Air Force would use $3.4 million of that to protect more than 4,500 acres of high-priority land necessary to maintain training airspace for the Dare County Bombing Range -- the primary training range for F-15E aircraft crews at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

It would do so through a voluntary program placing conservation easements on crop and forest land under the military training route approaching the Dare County Bombing Range.

In July, 2016, the Department of Defense designated 33 eastern North Carolina counties as federal "Sentinel Landscapes." It is on those counties that the $9.2 million can be spent.

Agriculture and agribusiness comprise North Carolina's largest industry, with an annual economic impact of $84 billion.

The military is second at $66 billion.

The grant requires a dollar for dollar match from the state that was not included in the budget.

"Funding is available in the budget for REPI through the Agriculture Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund," said Sen. Harry Brown, co-chairman of the Appropriations/Base Budget Committee. "This is consistent with what the Department of Defense has published in a fact sheet on the grant here."

Some of the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund's current funding could be used toward a match for REPI-funded projects, but those projects would have to compete against other trust fund applications from across the state, said Brian Long, public affairs director for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"The original idea was to have dedicated state funds specifically for the military-oriented projects," Long said. "It is worth noting that some of the identified REPI projects may have matching funds from sources besides the Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund."

The request for matching funds was included in the department's overall budget request, Long said.

The request also was included in a presentation the department's chief deputy commissioner, David Smith, made in March to the Joint Committee on Appropriations on Agriculture, Natural and Economic Resources, he said.

The matching funds were not included in either the House or Senate version of the budget, Long said.

"After those versions were released, the commissioner then tried to get the funding included in the final version of the budget that the House and Senate conferees worked on," he said.

It was not included.

Long said he does not know if any of the House or Senate leadership has spoken to Troxler as to why the money was not in the budget.

There is no immediate impact if the match is not forthcoming, he said.

"But if it takes two years or more to find matching funds for a particular REPI project, then it is possible that some of the REPI funding could be lost because the project couldn't be completed in a timely manner," Long said.