Cities may qualify for federal aid

Posted: Monday, March 31, 2008

When Kenai Mayor Pat Porter asked a federal program director two weeks ago if renewable energy grants are available through his agency for municipal buildings, she was told they are not. But the door was not shut on getting federal help.

Dean Stewart, director of business programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development office in Palmer, was in town telling members of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce about renewable or alternative energy grants available to business owners in rural Alaska.

The grants could help fund solar panels atop a hotel, energy conserving lighting systems in banquet halls and technologically efficient refrigeration units for restaurants, but grant funds are not available to municipalities under that USDA program.

Kenai as well as other Kenai Peninsula communities may qualify for direct loans from the USDA or for loan guarantees under Rural Development's Community Facilities Program. The program also provides grants to assist in developing essential community facilities in rural areas.

Michelle Hoffman, who heads the Rural Development's Kenai office, described a number of Kenai Peninsula Borough entities that have been helped through the Community Facilities Program in recent years.

Most recently Central Peninsula Health Care used a $2.75 million direct loan to help build the new Community Health Center, which opened in November on Marydale Avenue in Soldotna.

About one year earlier, a new Homer library was opened with the assist of two Community Facilities loans totaling $2.1 million and three Community Facilities grants totaling $993,000, according to Hoffman.

The federal program helped the Aspen Dental Clinic purchase its building in Kenai with a nearly $1 million loan.

Hoffman said the Ninilchik Emergency Medical Service has been awarded grants through the Community Facilities Program that provided $50,500 toward the purchase of a fire truck and other equipment in 2006, and $12,750 for firefighter safety equipment in 2005.

In partnership with borough communities and the Rasmuson Foundation, many EMS units from Anchor Point to Tyonek received grant funding under the "Code Blue EMS" program, according to Merlaine Kruse, director of community programs for USDA Rural Development.

The Code Blue program started in 2000, when it was learned a number of EMS groups' ambulances were inoperative. On the Kenai Peninsula, emergency responders receiving grant funds for EMS equipment include Anchor Point, Kachemak, Moose Pass, Ninilchik and Tyonek.

Also receiving Code Blue grant funds for ambulances or other transport equipment, as well as EMS equipment, were Kenai, Nanwalek, Nikolaevsk, Port Graham and Seldovia.

Other Community Facilities grants received on the peninsula in recent years include one in Seldovia to help build the Seldovia Village Tribal and Cultural Center and two small grants to Ionia to help build its long house community center near Kasilof.

"Grants are supposed to go to entities most in need," Kruse said. "We review their finances, and if we find they are able to repay a loan, we provide a loan guarantee. If it would be difficult for them to repay, we could go with a direct loan."

Loans and loan guarantees are available to public entities, including municipalities, counties and special-purpose districts, as well as nonprofit corporations and tribal governments.

For essential community facilities, the Community Facilities Program can provide grants, loans or loan guarantees. For recreational facilities, such as a community hockey rink, only loan guarantees can be provided.

When asked how difficult it is to apply for the financial assistance, Hoffman said, "Some people might think it's difficult."

On the peninsula, however, she said her office processes all the applications and she sits down with the applicants first to determine if they qualify for the grant, loan or loan guarantee before filling out the application.

As with any federal program, applicants must meet all federal requirements, such as civil rights protections and Americans with Disabilities Act mandates, Hoffman said.

"Sometimes it is going to take a little bit longer, but we must insure the project meets all federal requirements," she said.

Hoffman also said about four years ago, the Kenai Peninsula Housing Initiative was helped to purchase a transitional housing facility in Soldotna for people coming out of alcohol or substance abuse treatment.

"Many years ago, we did a loan guarantee (to help build) the food bank," she said.

Municipalities or broad-based nonprofit organizations that perform services normally provided by government may contact Hoffman at 283-8732 for help in applying for assistance under the Community Facilities Program.

Phil Hermanek can be reached at phillip.hermanek@peninsulaclarion.com.



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