River panel responds to NPS query
NARROWSBURG, NY — Despite the Trump administration withholding contracted grant funding, the Upper Delaware Council (UDC) is refusing “to go quietly into that good night.”
Speaking at the Highland Town Board meeting last week, Supervisor Jeff Haas explained why the demise of the UDC and the loss of its mandated review function in local land-use matters is critical to valley governments and property owners. “The UDC is a buffer between the towns and the NPS [National Park Service]. We’d have to deal directly with the NPS if UDC fails. Those will probably be people in Colorado or Philadelphia, not locals,” he said.
Haas called for public support of the UDC and directed those with questions to contact UDC Executive Director Laurie Ramie.
In October, Upper Delaware NPS Superintendent Kris Heister said that the language of the park’s authorizing legislation left the NPS contracting with UDC as optional. Regarding the future of UDC’s existing funding level, Heister then said the $300,000 is probably “a safe bet now. After December 8 [the expiration of the latest budget extension], I don’t know.”
Currently at issue, is a UDC unrestricted fund, whose existence most recently prompted a veiled threat on November 9 of a Department of Interior, Inspector General’s investigation by NPS Northeast Region Chief Financial Officer Alexa Molnar, in a letter demanding all documentation related to that fund.
Ramie said on November 17 that the UDC staff (of three) and “our accounting subcontractors” are now gathering the records needed to answer the National Park Service’s question about the origin of the council’s unrestricted fund by the December 1 NPS deadline. “That is our agreed-upon course of action.”
UDC’s principal funding source is a $300,000 annual federal grant, which it has received since its inception in 1988. Additional annual UDC support of $100,000 each, promised in 1988 by New York and Pennsylvania, has never appeared despite repeated queries.
UDC’s unrestricted fund is largely derived from interest that the council once earned on its federal allocation. During the first 23 years of UDC existence, NPS provided the $300,000 grant as a lump sum payment at the start of the fiscal year. That allowed for UDC’s prudent investment in certificates of deposit. The resulting earned interest, along with other smaller revenue sources such as donations, program fees and grant administration fees, all accumulated in the unrestricted fund.
This year, after three decades of unremarkable and uncontested financial reporting on the handling of federal funding, NPS has twice withheld grant funding for months at a time, while federal officials reviewed grants and questioned financial management.
Federal programs require the exhaustion or refunding of all federal money at the end of each fiscal year. The UDC argues that the unrestricted fund did not come from the U.S. Treasury. The fund kept UDC afloat during four months earlier this year when the Department of Interior (DOI) held up all grant payments in mid-April amid a system-wide audit of all its hundreds of similar grant and cooperative agreement programs. UDC funding was only restored in mid-July, following an outcry from area members of Congress and national conservation groups.
Documentation is unavailable, but the probability is that many other small DOI programs funded solely by federal money were forced to shut down because of that review. A search for a published completion date for the review was unsuccessful, but other published accounts detailed its impacts into late August.
DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke approved the review on the same day that he released a statement supporting Trump’s March 13 executive order outlining a reorganization of the executive branch, along with a guidance document titled “Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce.”
NPS funding of UDC was stopped again in October when NPS, despite having received unchallenged annual audit reports over the last three decades, questioned the origin and ownership of unrestricted fund money. “All of that has been duly reported each year, but we will prepare a summary as per their request with supporting documentation,” Ramie said.
“Besides relying on this fund to carry us along during times when the federal funding is late or unavailable, the current system of drawing down reimbursements for our monthly expenditures requires the UDC to have some source of money to pay [recurring monthly] bills while awaiting that reimbursement. That’s a critical point to how we operate,” she added.
Ramie said her draft of the audit documentation report would be reviewed for approval by the UDC panel before submission to NPS.