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Framing The Case For Rim Fire Resilience Funds

Sonora, CA — Officials are now craftily configuring a final federal grant package that they hope might bring millions in community resilience funds to Tuolumne County.

As previously reported, earlier this year the State of California chose Tuolumne County as a partner and the 2013 Rim Fire as a focus in order to contend for major dollars available through a new federal National Disaster Resiliency Competition. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation, now indicates it will be sometime next January when they will award nearly $1 billion in disaster recovery and long-term community resilience funds to applicants who pass the final muster.

Eligible areas of  Tuolumne County for which the targeted funding is being sought are those that were part of the Rim Fire perimeter as well as any that were evacuated in the wake of the 257,314-acre fire disaster that ranks as the third largest in California’s recorded history.

Back in June came word that the county’s joint application made it through round two of the three-phase grant process for which final submissions from 40 finalists are due on October 27. According to Tuolumne County Deputy CAO Maureen Frank, these last few weeks the core application team has been grappling with all the devils in the details while preparing a review draft for public comment by October 1. She admits that the final process is proving quite challenging — and somewhat frustrating.

Among the difficulties, after sending out a call for projects in late June, Frank reports that the county received over 140, which were “all extremely worthy, extremely needed in the community,” she laments. Harder still, she says, it has been for the core team to resolve the specifics, not just of the proposed projects, but how HUD is defining what programs, activities and services it considers eligible for the disaster resilience funding.

Just What Constitutes Resilience?

“What HUD is looking for is concepts…ideas and communications on resiliency and how does this community going to come out of whatever qualifying event it was — for Tuolumne County it was the Rim Fire…and how we are going to become more resilient,” Frank states. However, she shares, “The definition of resiliency means something different to each and every person and that that’s been extremely frustrating, I think, [for us] as a [rural] community.”

A case in point that Frank notes is that all of the project examples HUD provided are urban in nature. On the top of the list, she states, “As a [rural] community, we’d like to see improvements in…communications for our first responders…communications out to our communities, both during a disaster and…for economic development and…growth and…we’ve been told that ‘it doesn’t count — you won’t be able to apply for anything related to communications [because] we’re not paying for communications equipment.'” A bit exasperated, she emphasizes that the county is looking to create an entire communications system but that distinction was lost on HUD.

The good news is that, even if the rules for this new grant are somewhat different from what Frank thinks HUD might otherwise traditionally fund, she says the team has been told that the funding decisions will not be limited to an “all or nothing” award. “They’ve even reserved the right to what they are calling to ‘cherry pick’ out any activities…projects or services that don’t think meet their definition from an application,” Frank explains. So, the state she says is currently working hard to submit “the very best, most competitive application” possible and will likely ask for much less than the maximum $500 million available per applicant.

Another cause for optimism, that HUD is additionally directing submissions to include a list of prioritized needs, further increases the possibility that the county might claim funding from the process. “We keep being told that, if there are projects, whether it’s the Rockefellar Foundation or some other philanthrophic organization that sees…likes the idea…or the concept and would like to put some money towards it, there could be more money added or granted to a community,” she shares.

Funding for resilience projects is just the beginning of the discussion for the county, as Frank sees it. She declares, “There’s nothing on the [county’s application project] list that doesn’t need to be done.” She adds that, no matter how all their line items and needs are rated by HUD, the entire process is helping to develop a business plan for building resilience and identifying additional ways and means to fund these projects, moving forward.