This month's question: How has your co-op been a good steward of state or federal grant money?

Answer: I think the most important factor that makes co-ops such good stewards of public grant money is our governing principles. I'll give you an example. In 2017 and 2018, Otsego EC won a total of $14 million from the “New New York Broadband" program. The grants required us to build fiber-to-the-home into certain unserved areas, both in our electric territory and outside it, but would only have covered about half our members. We quickly realized that we would have to go further. The co-op principle of equal treatment of members mandated it. So the OEC board voted to broaden the project and build out to our full territory. It was the right thing to do, and we did it first and foremost because we're a co-op. We have several other inherent advantages, particularly when it comes to broadband grants. Since we own our distribution systems, fiber make-ready costs are usually lower. Years of following REA construction and maintenance standards means our systems can generally handle the additional equipment without large expense. Our ability to use our own crews to do fiber work helps grant dollars go further. And our focus on community development and our mission to improve our members' lives drives us to pursue projects like these in the first place. As co-ops, we understand that the money we spend belongs to our members. As recipients of public dollars through state and federal grants, that same understanding applies.

Answer: The initial projects to establish Guthrie County REC’s Revolving Loan Fund (RLF) were to a daycare, a healthcare clinic and a spec building. USDA Rural Economic Development Loans and Grant funds, combined with a 20% match by the cooperative, provides about $1 million to distribute to our members and the communities we serve in central Iowa. We have successfully loaned and re-loaned three times over the funds in our RLF. The board of directors, which serves as the loan committee, takes seriously its responsibility to our members and the USDA by closely examining every application. We limited our exposure to no more than 50% involvement in a project, or $150,000 loaned. To date, we have not become involved in any micro lending and have not had any of our loans default. Over 25 years, we have been involved in developing spec buildings, expanding numerous healthcare facilities throughout our service territory, assisting in the purchase of existing businesses and providing funding to new small business owners; like our newest borrower, a much-needed local meat locker. These projects demonstrate how Guthrie County Rural Electric Cooperative is a good steward of the USDA loan and grant funds to the betterment of our members and the communities we serve.

Answer: In the 1990s, Butler County REC was afforded the opportunity to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Economic Development Loan & Grant (REDL&G) program. Since inception, we have invested over $600,000, which has leveraged a total investment of $10.6 million in our communities for business development through USDA grants. This includes $3.13 million in grants for 10 organizations, retaining or creating 580 jobs. We have also loaned over $12 million dollars through 70 loans, retaining or creating over 1,500 jobs through the USDA program. The local economy benefits from the revenue and employment that these businesses provide. Butler County REC strives for our rural service territory to become an importer of jobs, not an exporter. In addition, we have been the recipient of Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement funds for system repairs and upgrades due to storms impacting our system. Our first experience with FEMA was after an ice storm in 2007, when 95 percent of our members lost power. FEMA funds have assisted in strengthening our system to help ensure reliability for our members. Being a good steward of grant money is in line with one of Butler County REC’s core values—accountability. Using those funds to help our members is a cooperative principle—Concern for Community. It is worth the time to invest in partnerships with state and federal agencies to benefit our members.

Answer: Over the years, Victoria EC has been the recipient of federal grant funds in various forms. Whether it be through ERATE funding for delivering fiber to underserved school districts or being on the wrong end of a natural disaster, I am grateful for the financial support we’ve received. Due to our location on the Texas Gulf Coast, hurricanes are not uncommon. Our most devastating, Hurricane Harvey in 2017, resulted in Federal Emergency Management Agency funding of about $8 million, with another $400,000 in direct administrative costs for mitigation work which has only recently been completed. Victoria EC is grateful to have been a recipient of federal disaster recovery funds, we spend them as if they were our own, insisting on efficient and effective management. I must warn you, while the grant process is beneficial, it is a long, slow, painstaking effort. Stewardship of these funds is paramount. But the best investment is the time before disaster strikes or the expenses are incurred. It begins through establishing response plans and assigning responsibilities for internal oversight prior to any project or event. This includes separate financial accounts for receipts and expenditures and ensuring competitive bids annually or as required by the specific type of grant, always prior to work being performed. Finally, we review changes to requirements annually and refresh all personnel on the importance of record keeping during our annual tabletop exercise.