Plymouth Council Wary of “Shell Game” to Reimburse Residents for Narcissa Road Project
Plymouth Township disagrees with Leach staffer on legality of applying for grant money.
Plymouth Township Council wants to tread carefully into any efforts to reimburse roughly twenty residents for the "Narcissa Road Project," an already-completed sewer and construction improvement project on that roadway.
According to discussions at Monday's monthly Council meeting, residents of Narcissa Road originally pursued a private option for the sewer project prior to 2008.
However, they then instead chose to give their money to the township and allowed it to handle the project and pay contractors. Part of the reason for the decision was that both parties believed that grant money could be received through the office of Daylin Leach (D-17), to lessen the financial burden.
However, Zach Hoover, chief of staff for Leach, said a $25,000 grant application was mishandled by the office of former senator and minority chair of the appropriations committee, Vincent Fumo.
"There was no money left in the house appropriation coffers [in 2008], so when Leach was elected to the Senate, we had the idea to reach out to the senate appropriations committee," Hoover said. "We were told there was money that would be a good fit for these projects… and a [Fumo] staffer offered to help us with the grant process."
However, Hoover said his office has since found out that the grant was "mis-submitted" to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), asking for reimbursement for residents, as opposed to the township. Under law, DEP cannot make reimbursements to private citizens through the grant process.
In order to remedy the situation, Hoover suggested the township instead reapply for the money for an entirely different project, and then reimburse the residents with other funds.
"We would rewrite the grant to direct it toward some other township sewer infrastructure improvement, and then the township would use other resources to reimburse the residents," Hoover said. "We've done this with a couple of other municipalities and it hasn't been a problem."
However, township officials and council members took issue with this approach, saying they believe it could be illegal.
"Unlike Senator Fumo, I will not be spending time in a federal penitentiary," said council chair Sheldon Simpson. "Thanks very much for your offer, but I don't think it's going to happen."
"I would not be for any of the shell games that you're talking about," said district 1 councilman Dean Eisenberger, to some applause. "I don't think this council should be sitting here even entertaining the idea."
Hoover pushed back, reiterating that he did not believe his suggested course of action to be illegal.
"I don't see any step along the process that could be considered illegal when you're applying for a grant, and spending the money that you get for the grant on exactly what it's applied for," said Hoover. "As far as reimbursing the residents, that's a decision completely up to the township."
Plymouth Township solicitor Thomas Speers said he still had concerns with the approach.
"You're standing up here in a public meeting, requesting us to apply for a grant with the quid pro quo to reimburse the residents," said Speers." When you just stand up in a public meeting and announce what you're going to do, I'd want an opinion from the Attorney General's office."
A number of Narcissa Road residents also spoke at the meeting in favor of Hoover's approach. One resident, Doug Bellenger, said that he had given approximately $20,000 for the project, and was expecting reimbursement.
"We made investments into the Narcissa Road project with the intent of receiving money back," said Bellenger. "It was our expectation that the township was going to work on our behalf to make that happen… if we knew we were going to be in this situation, I think we could have done it cheaper privately."
Council responded by saying that intent was different than a guarantee.
"The intent was there, but there was never a guarantee," said Simpson. "The township said that if, and when, the money from these grants becomes available, that it would go toward the project to reduce your costs."
Council ultimately decided to table the matter until Leach's office provides a written opinion from the Attorney General on the legality of applying for another grant with the intention to reimburse separate moneys if it is obtained.
In addition, district 3 councilman Vince Gillen suggested that council look to see if there were any free township funds to help reimburse the residents if the grant doesn't pan out.
"The residents lost out on this grant money," said Gillen. "Everybody was on board and was happy that $25,000 was coming through, and then it just never materialized."