Obscure Program Revises Process, Accountability Remains Illusory

February 24, 2012

Investigative Reports

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Senior CenterWorking to convince South Carolinians that a little-known competitive grants program is on the up and up, the S.C. Lieutenant Governor’s Office recently introduced a revised application process for the Senior Center Permanent Improvement Program.

Included in the updated application package are two separate references to different state codes as purported statutory evidence authorizing the use of tax dollars – approximately $3 million this past year and more than $12 million since 2000 – for the program, originally begun in the early 1990s to finance upgrades to 74 senior centers throughout South Carolina.

However, as The Nerve has detailed several times over the past three years, the laws listed by the Lieutenant Governor’s Office have either been repealed or only addressed where money for the program – which comes from bingo tax revenue – is to be deposited, not how it is to be disbursed.

But that’s not slowing down the Office on Aging, which, under the lieutenant governor, manages the program.

The application process for this year’s round of competitive grants opened on Feb. 1 and will run through the end of the month. Evaluations and site visits will be conducted in the spring, with grants announcements coming later, according to the application.

Officials with Lt. Gov. Ken Ard’s office have failed to provide The Nerve with details regarding enabling legislation for the program. Prior to Ard taking office last year, officials under former Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer also were unable to provide The Nerve with a law that authorizes the program.

Ard’s spokeswoman, Julia Foster, did not respond to inquiries for this story.

Symptomatic of a Bigger Problem

Why is this obscure program important? First, because many millions in state tax dollars have been spent with little apparent outside supervision, but also because it highlights a serious flaw in the state budget process connected to so-called other funds, critics contend.

Other funds represent more than one-third of Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposed $23 billion state budget but typically are expended on autopilot, with little oversight or transparency. As such, evaluation of programs for necessity and efficiency is difficult and accountability is arduous, if not impossible.

To emphasize just how difficult evaluation of such programs can be, information about the senior center program is listed on just a single line in the 2012-13 Office of State Budget’s detailed base budget, a document nearly 650 pages thick.

In addition, over the past three years, the Lieutenant Governor’s Office has repeatedly shown itself unwilling to answer questions regarding the program, no matter who the sitting lieutenant governor is.

Consider the following:

  • In 2009, under Bauer, officials declined to turn over information about the program despite repeated requests for a detailed accounting of projects, collections and expenditures. After the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, ran a report on the program, a spokesman for the Lieutenant Governor’s Office said his agency was “still chasing down the numbers” for the program and would provide them, yet in the end never provided additional information.
  • When the Policy Council attempted to obtain copies of all state-related communications sent or received via private e-mail accounts on state-owned or state-leased property or equipment from the Lieutenant Governor’s Office during a six-month period in 2009, officials in that office responded by stating that providing such information would cost $61 an hour.
  • Late last year The Nerve tried to ascertain why funding for the senior center program had jumped to $3 million a year, up from about $1 million annually. Foster, who joined the office when Ard took office in 2011, responded via email that, “Payment for approved projects and expenditures (was) covered by (state budget) Proviso 89.87.

However, Proviso 89.87 for fiscal year 2010-11 applied to several different programs, only one of which was under the Lieutenant Governor’s Office. It concerned the “Home and Community Based Services (Meals on Wheels),” according to language in the budget.

It was unclear how Meals on Wheels, a program that delivers food to home-bound individuals, was connected to the senior center program, nor was there an amount specified in the proviso. Also, provisos expire after a year unless renewed, yet the Lieutenant Governor’s Office has continued spending money on the program at the ramped-up rate.

What it Means to Taxpayers

For the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, the Lieutenant Governor’s Office is requesting $3 million for the program, according to information submitted to the Office of State Budget last September.That’s the same amount it received this fiscal year.

If approved, the program will have been allotted nearly as much in taxpayer dollars over three years – $7.1 million – as it expended from the time it was conceived in 1991 until the last of original projects were completed nine years later, after which it was supposed to have been shut down by the original statute.

When representatives of the Lieutenant Governor’s Office were interviewed in 2009, they asserted that, “The original legislation was amended by the General Assembly in 1997 to continue it beyond the original list” of 74 projects.

However, neither the Lieutenant Governor’s Office nor the S.C. Legislative Council, which drafts bills, was able then to locate any other statute authorizing the specific use of monies in the program fund for the competitive grants program.

Representatives from Bauer’s office cited Section 12-21-3441 of the state code as authorization for the continuation of the program. However, that section refers to financing improvements to the original 74 senior centers, and has since been repealed.

A second section, 12-21-4200, does authorize the appropriation of the bingo tax revenue to the program fund. But the provision addresses only where the money is to be deposited, not how it is to be disbursed.

Those are the same two codes that Ard’s office cites in the new grant application package.

On the introduction page of the application, the first item after the program’s mission statement is titled “Declaration of Intent.” It reads: “It is the intent of the LGOA (Lieutenant Governor’s Office, Office on Aging), to administer the PIP (Permanent Improvement Program) grant according to the authority vested to the LGOA by the legislature, Section 12-21-3441 and 12-21-3441. The LGOA keeps the state’s legislative intent at the forefront of its PIP grant mission, and manages the matching grant program accordingly.”

It’s not clear why code 12-21-3441 is cited twice.

On the following page, under background, the final paragraph states, “The legislative basis for this grant program can be found in Section 12-21-3441 of the Code of Laws of South Carolina 1976 and Section 12-21-4200.”

Yet, despite the program’s questionable legitimacy, it’s been full steam ahead over the past couple of years.

Consider that between the beginning of 2005 and the end of 2009, there were 52 total expenditures through the program, or barely 10 a year on average, according to the S.C. Comptroller General’s Office.

But from the beginning of 2010 until mid-2011, nearly 500 payments were made through the program, records show. Because the Lieutenant Governor’s Office hasn’t responded to questions, it’s impossible to determine how many projects were funded in total last year, or exactly how much money was spent.

In fact, there isn’t even a mention of the program in the most recent annual accountability report for the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, dated Sept. 15, 2011.

That, despite the fact that the $3 million in other funds allotted for the program represents more than 10.5 percent of the office’s total 2011-12 budget.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.