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STUDY: Rural communities struggle to access grant funding

Researchers from the University of Michigan have noticed a significant gap between rural and urban communities when it comes to getting state or federal funding.

The latest Michigan Public Policy Survey asked local governments what they need.

IPR’s Michael Livingston spoke to the project manager Debrah Horner about her findings.

Listen through the audio player above.

LIVINGSTON: The survey measured the confidence levels of government officials on their abilities to access and administer grant funding. Can you summarize what you found?

HORNER: So this is a survey research program that the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy has conducted since 2009. So we've been doing it for 14, almost 15 years. And it's a census survey of all of the local governments across the state of Michigan — every county, city, village and township across the state, there's 1,856 of them. We survey them once or twice a year on all of the different topics that might touch upon local government policy.

What we found is there's a core group who are very confident that they can get grant money. They can monitor for future grant opportunities, they are confident they can successfully apply for — about one in five jurisdictions across the state are very confident in that ability.

However, there's over a quarter across the state that are not confident that their jurisdictions can monitor future grant opportunities. And a third aren't confident that they can successfully apply for those grant funding opportunities. So while there are people out there who are in larger counties and larger cities who have the staff and the expertise and the resources to be able to pursue available grant funding from the state and federal governments, there's lots of small and mid-sized types of local governments out there who just really aren't able to navigate that process.

LIVINGSTON: I saw that many of these local governments with low confidence levels were in more rural areas, does that tell us anything as to why these officials feel the way they do?

HORNER: Their are relatively few local leaders in rural places that feel like they can seek out or monitor, much less apply. And when grant funding kind of their their concerns about this fell into two main categories: One is very much a lack of expertise and resources. So they, don't have grant writers, they don't have current staff who know how to write grants, they need training in this. They don't have people who can devote much time to it because they're they're busy doing other things that they're responsible for around the township or the village.

Then another big issue around the concerns that rural and smaller local government leaders have is around kind of communication about available grants. So there's there's not one clearinghouse for communication about the different opportunities for applying for grants.

LIVINGSTON: It feels like every day, I'm writing a new story about ARPA funding opportunities or grants from the state. Can you explain why those types of programs are important for small communities like the ones we have in northern Michigan.

HORNER: A lot of local governments are funded in Michigan through their property tax — and property tax has the benefit of being a very stable source of income for local governments. But unfortunately, the flip side of that is there's not much change in property tax. Unfortunately, during the Great Recession, there was a huge drop in property tax revenues that have just recently kind of come back to where it was. And COVID didn't help either.

So we're in a situation where local governments really are kind of treading water in terms of their their current funding, and being able to just fund their operations and what they're required to do.

So for example, small townships must run elections. And so they have to put a certain amount of their budget into that. So really, if they want to look to improve their operations, do new things, improve water and sewer, improve roads, improve public safety, they're going to need to look for external funding in order to do that.

LIVINGSTON: So what do you think needs to change to defy these numbers? What solutions could we take to better include small communities in conversations about grant funding? You mentioned staffing and communication being the two biggest issues, how do we tackle them?

HORNER: The grant pursuit process is not a one size fits all process. Large counties and large cities across the state have certain kinds of information, certain kinds of resources, certain kinds of guidelines that they can meet, that aren't the same as what local governments that are small and rural have.

It'd be great if the state could make a more accessible system that really targets small local governments - provides them directly with the communications they need, bundle it all into one place rather than, having people to seek out opportunities in different places where they might not even know where to look.

So, a consolidated list of grants - maybe things like workshops, or help desks or other kinds of concierge services that would allow local governments to to be brought into the system as opposed to having to chase down all the opportunities themselves.

The full survey results are available here.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.