Orange Park’s grant program proving to be worthy investment

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ORANGE PARK – The town hired a grant writing agency over a year and a half ago, and the fruits of that investment continue to grow.

Orange Park has gone through a myriad of changes in the past few years, especially following the devastating Hurricane Irma of 2017. That hurricane revealed a lot of problems with the town’s infrastructure system which saw the town invest in a number of ways, including grants. The town is now in the process of applying for grants not just for stormwater maintenance, but for dozens of other things.

“We hired Grant Development and Management on a three-year contract last year and they’ve been prolific in their work,” Town Manager Sarah Campbell said. “It’s like having an extra department and they’re constantly bringing in grants.”

Campbell said the grant writing agency is basically an extension of the town’s many departments. They’re the masters at writing grants and the town’s many departments are the masters of what those grants are going to fund. If the town is looking to apply for a grant to cover fire station-related costs, the agency consults the town’s fire department. The fire department and the grant writers work together to determine a grant narrative, grant outline and more.

There is a lot of interface, Campbell said. One of the bigger things the town is working on currently is removing septic tanks. The grant writers worked with the town’s public works department to determine what the costs involved are, how to best design the process, what construction will look like, what tank removal will look like, and what it will take to get people connected afterward.

“That’s all part of the process and they work together to make that happen,” Campbell said. “There’s usually a narrative to describe the project and goals. There’s a budget worksheet that gets attached to describe how we’d spend the money. Often, additional attachments like maps or engineering estimations are included. The applications are uploaded to the agency through their own proprietary process or sent in electronically or as actual mail.”

Each grant the town applies for is essentially separate. They don’t really communicate, Campbell said. One grant that will be used for septic tank removal could have a two-year timeline attached to it while another grant, completely separate but will still be used to fund the same project, might have a three-year timeline. Campbell said that because of that, it can be tricky to manage and prioritize applications.

“Something might be higher priority as a project, but something else might have a quicker deadline so we have to shift focus to that,” Campbell said. “[Grant Development and Management] help us balance that.”

Some of the grants in the works at Orange Park include the ongoing future visioning project, the upcoming voluntary home buyout project that will see homes flooded in Irma potentially purchased in order to make them conservation lands, the removal of septic tanks and of course, dredging. Some grants like the visioning grant bring in $40,000 to the town while others like the voluntary home buyout grant would bring in $3.1 million.

Grant Development and Management’s contract ends after three years, which occurs in 2022, but Campbell said she doesn’t see the town abandoning the services of contractors for grant writing anytime soon.

“We would need to hire a permanent employee just to manage grants for us,” Campbell said. “Right now, it’s better for us to hire consultants. Maybe one day we could consider something in-house, but I’ve got other hires that need to be made first.”

Campbell said 99% of the grants the town applies for are reimbursement grants. That means the town applies for them, gets approved, spends the money out of its own pocket, invoices the agency, and is then reimbursed for the funding. The Town Council used to approve individual grants, but the town opted to create an assessment report to streamline the process. The town determined its priorities and identified types of programs it would like to pursue based on those priorities. The council-approved list is used by the grant writers to determine a general direction for grant pursuit.

“Grants are an important part of our funding process,” Campbell said.

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