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Future of senior facility remains unclear in Alcona County

Courtesy of Unsplash

After Lansing lawmakers passed a record-setting budget for the 2023 fiscal year this summer, a lot of questions emerged about grants earmarked for special projects.

One of those is a $12.5 million grant to the Alcona County Commission on Aging to build a new senior facility in the village of Lincoln. But there’s a lot of tension and uncertainty surrounding the project.

Rick Brewer spoke with Detroit News politics and state government reporter Beth LeBlanc about the future of this facility.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Rick Brewer: Beth, where does this story begin?

Beth LeBlanc: So, this story begins, at least for the public watching from the outside this story begins in early July. There was an overnight session between June 30 and July 1, in which the legislature passed a record $76 billion budget and squirreled away in that budget was about $1 billion of what we traditionally call pork or pet projects that lawmakers were trying to secure for their communities. You know, you see pork and a lot of different budgets, but it was never to this scale, the $1 billion in pork, was really historic this past year. And so that's where it started. And that $1 billion in pork included about 140 projects that didn't have much in the way of a description, right, just looking at the titles, it was difficult to know, A, where they were located, B, what they were funding, who sponsored it, why they sponsored it, who it was going to. So we've taken the past, you know, six months or so, to kind of dig through the details of these different grants to understand where they were going to. And so, one of the ones we looked at, of these 140 was one going to an up north village of about 300 people called Lincoln to benefit the Alcona County Commission on Aging. And that's kind of where it started, one of those grants kind of sprang onto our radar. And we soon found out that there was a little bit of angst over this grant and how it would be used in that village.

RB: Beth, you talked about how this was done behind closed doors, this $76 billion budget, and a lot of these lawmakers were even unaware of where some of these pork projects were going in their districts. How has the behind closed-door nature of these grants sort of influenced how this facility in Lincoln is being executed?

BL: This budget kind of came about behind closed doors. And, you know, in kind of the horse trading of trying to get the budget across the finish line with the divided government. A lot of times you see these pork projects being traded back and forth, in order to secure a final product. Now, the thing is, is that a lot of the people put in their bids for these projects, or these communities talk to their lawmakers about how they would like money for this or how they would like money for that. But sometimes, because this is done behind closed doors, they don't figure out until days after the budget passes, that they were actually in it. And that was the case with this grant in Lincoln, that it took, I don't know a day or so or two days or three days for folks in the village or in the Commission on Aging to actually figure out that they were in the budget, that they got 12 and a half million dollars. And so that kind of that was a little bit of a surprise to them. They had requested it. So, I think it was a welcome surprise for the people on the Commission on Aging board. But it soon raised some concerns as well among board members on this commission.

RB: Right, that's a perfect segue into what are some of the tension on this board now because now they have all this money, and they're sort of deciding what exactly is next in this process?

BL: Yeah, so this, this is kind of it has become more complicated than I think anybody expected, you know that the Alcona County Commission on Aging for years, has been looking at the idea of a senior center, looking at the idea of giving a new center to folks who are elderly in the community, because the one that they have currently is very old. However, they were never able to secure funding for a senior center. So, a few years ago, they got a new executive director, Lenny Avery. And he thought, well, maybe if we expand the project and include more things, we might qualify for more grants. So, he expanded the project to include possibly a community hub of sorts with activity centers for kids in the area. Then he thought, why don't we do senior housing, then, like moderate income housing was added as well. So, it became kind of this larger and larger project. The budget has fluctuated for over the past few years. But they've always said, well, this is conceptual, you know, we're just kind of throwing things at the wall saying, if we got all of the things on our wish list, how big could this get? Well, when they got that grant, they very quickly had to put pen to paper. And the grant that they got. It was for a community hub. It was for senior housing; it was for moderate income housing or middle-income housing. And all of a sudden that the board of directors on the Alcona County Commission on Aging, or at least some of them started raising concerns about the fact that they are a 501 C-3 that their bylaws as a 501 C-3, kind of limit them to projects related to seniors. So, they're worried right now, they have 12 and a half million dollars. But they're also locked into this idea that they have to do a larger project that goes far beyond the senior center and includes housing for seniors and for middle income folks. And so, they're worried that their IRS standing will be impacted by this. And there's a lot of debate on the board right now, there's also a lot of concern that, you know, they finally get the money that they need. And now, this is kind of devolving into an argument over whether they can use it. There's a lot of frustration right now coming from the board on both sides of this issue.

RB: Beth, can you maybe elaborate on the conditions within this $12.5 million grant the commission received?

BL: Well, that's the thing. I mean, these grants, in general, the 140 grants, I mean, even though we have over the past six months, uncovered more details about them, the contracts that they have with the state over how they use this money, they're still pretty loose about how they use the money and what it goes towards. And that's the case with Alcona. County, I mean, there's in their contract with the state, there's a brief mention of a community hub. And there's really no mention in writing of like a senior housing complex or a middle-income housing complex. But then there's renderings within the contract of those items. So, the executive director is saying, yeah, we signed a contract agreeing to build a community hub, and then a senior housing complex and a middle-income housing complex. The contract from what I was able to review of it is a little less precise, so that's kind of what the contract requires of them. I think there's a bit of infighting right now over whether they are tied to that full plan, whether they could scale it back to a senior center, you know, what kind of wiggle room there is, in terms of that contract with the state right now?

RB: What's next for this story, Beth. How is the board planning to move forward?

BL: Well, we've heard from folks since it published that there is, you know, the executive director right now is trying to secure at least a work plan to move forward with so they can put bids out to get a contract manager in and push this construction into, you know, actually getting shovels in the ground after more than a decade of planning for a senior center up there. So, the executive director really wants to get this moving forward. They have a board meeting January 24, where they're going to be discussing this. But I think there still remains that question of whether their 501 C-3 status would be impacted by the expanse or the reach of this project. So, there's still going to be a lot of debate about that. I think there might be a debate about whether they can change their bylaws or change kind of their description within their 501 C-3 status to allow them to do that or just to keep it the same and see what happens if they do start building this.

RB: Beth, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.

BL: Thanks for having me.

Rick joined WCMU as a general assignment reporter in March 2022.