Two hours of public debate didn’t sway the Douglas County Commission’s stance on setting aside $350,000 for heritage preservation projects.
On Wednesday night, Commission Chairman Mike Gaughan and Commissioner Nancy Thellman didn’t waiver on their support to fund cultural, natural and heritage preservation projects in 2012. And Commissioner Jim Flory stood strong on his belief that the program should be suspended until better economic times.
In light of a projected $2.3 million budget shortfall in 2013, Flory asked the commission to reconsider moving forward with the 2012 application process for Heritage Conservation Council grants. The county has already allocated $350,000 in 2012 for heritage preservation.
At a time when the county is facing the possibility of cutting funding to social service agencies and is holding off merit wages for county employees and hiring staff, Flory said suspending the program for two years would save the county $700,000.
“I challenge my fellow commissioners to ask for the candid opinions of social service agencies, county department heads and county employees whether it is fiscally responsible for us to continue to fund these projects to the detriment of their agencies, to their departments and to their employees,” Flory said.
Wednesday’s meeting had plenty of comments from those who said they reaped the benefit from the first round of grants.
Among them were representatives from the Black Jack Battlefield Trust, which received $163,000 to renovate a homestead connected to the land. Preserving sites such as Black Jack Battlefield boosts heritage tourism, which brings in other money to Douglas County, supporters said.
“Our heritage is essential. It is the core of who we are to know where we are and who we are. For too many years, we have ignored it,” said Kerry Altenbernd, who is with the trust. “We have ignored our heritage, so we have suffered economically.”
Even those whose grant application didn’t receive any funding, such as Douglas County Historical Society Director Steve Nowak, spoke in favor of the program.
“It is hard for organizations trying to keep things running at the regular level to achieve the next phase of its vision. This is a grant program that allows that to happen,” Nowak said.
But there were plenty of others urging the commission to not fund the program.
“The county is in dire straights. Spending an additional $350,000, I believe, would be a mistake,” said Edmond Rae, an unemployed engineer.
Frank Male said the county should be spending money on basic needs, especially those that help social service agencies such as Bert Nash, Cottonwood and Independence Inc.
“Now is not the time to spend the money on the icing on the cake. We have to protect the core,” Male said.
In the end, both Thellman and Gaughan said they saw the economic and cultural benefits to funding heritage preservation projects and wanted to see the next round of funding move forward.
“Heritage tourism is economic development,” Thellman said.