Urban League, Sankofa protest ‘unwarranted, discriminatory’ diversion of Hamilton County pandemic funds

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / President and CEO Candy Johnson speaks during the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga's 40th Anniversary Equal Opportunity Day Breakfast at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Dec. 8, 2022.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / President and CEO Candy Johnson speaks during the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga's 40th Anniversary Equal Opportunity Day Breakfast at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Dec. 8, 2022.

Note: An earlier version of this story misstated one of the Sankofa expenses questioned by County Mayor Weston Wamp.

Two organizations that collectively received more than $850,000 in federal funding are protesting Hamilton County's decision to divert those dollars for school athletic facilities, saying the move was "unwarranted, unfair and discriminatory."

They're demanding the county reverse its decision by Friday.

On Nov. 15, Hamilton County commissioners voted to pull funding from the Sankofa Civic Engagement Organization and the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga. The county awarded the money to the groups last year as part of a more than $71 million pot of pandemic relief funds it received through the American Rescue Plan Act.

Brought forward by Commissioner Lee Helton, R-East Brainerd, the resolution was a last-minute addition to the agenda at the end of commissioners' official business Nov. 15.

Commissioners voted 9-1 to divert $400,000 from Sankofa and $450,000 from the Urban League — plus $200,000 reserved for parking lot paving in the parks and recreation budget — to the Hamilton County Schools Fund for Excellence. That funding will now support the installation of artificial turf for the football field at The Howard School and various upgrades to the softball field at Brainerd High School.


Sankofa has received $600,000 in federal pandemic funding from the county, and the Urban League obtained $550,000, $50,000 of which was reserved for equipment, Urban League CEO Candy Johnson said in a phone call. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp said the organizations weren't spending the money efficiently.

"In fact, if we're going to get into a breakdown of expenditures, I think the community would be disappointed in how some of the funds were being used," he said. "They weren't being used to impact the community. ... It's been frankly more on office supplies than they were on any community impact."

Lakweisha Ewing, a member of the Sankofa advisory committee, said in a phone call she is disappointed the mayor is pitting the needs of students against the work done by Sankofa and the Urban League. The organizations support projects at local schools, but she questioned whether the county was practicing the same level of scrutiny for any of the dozens of other projects that received pandemic relief funds from the county.

"We're just not understanding the justification, being that we have been continually told by county financial officials and staff ... that we have done everything in compliance," Ewing said. "This makes no sense to us, and we are literally blindsided. ... This conversation is not about two Black-led, African-American-focused nonprofits against some ballfields at primarily Black schools. That is a smokescreen, it is a deflection and it is an insult to our public opinion of the citizenry of Hamilton County."

(READ MORE: How some Hamilton County municipalities plan to use millions in federal recovery funds)


Abrupt decision

In a letter to county officials, the Urban League and the Sankofa organization said the "abrupt decision" to reallocate funds lacked transparency and violated state law regarding open meetings.

"Furthermore, the actions taken by the Board of Commissioners failed to align with the county's own rules of procedure and practice," the letter said. "In the end, there was no public notice about the resolution and no opportunity to provide public comment at least 48 hours prior to the meeting."

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The groups said they were aware of conversations held with Hamilton County Schools personnel weeks before the resolution was passed, but no similar notice was provided to either of the organizations. The county also has nearly $150 million in surplus funding that officials could have used to fund both the organizations and school improvements, they said.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga City Council approves spending plan for $30 million in federal funding)

"What's even more troubling is that to our knowledge no other organizations receiving ARPA funds have been defunded to support school improvement efforts and strategically pitted against one another by elected officials," the organizations said in the statement. "The schools are a great cause, but the manner in which this has transpired is unfair, underhanded and reflects a blatant disregard for the communities we all serve, primarily communities of color and other disadvantaged persons."

The Sankofa Civic Engagement Organization has worked to raise more than $1 million to distribute to Chattanooga's African American communities, including Brainerd and Howard high schools, since it started in 2017, the letter said. The second grant cycle was set to open the last week of November with the remaining $400,000 to be distributed during two grant periods in 2024.

"But now we are left wondering how we will deliver on this commitment," the organization said.

In the letter, the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga said its new headquarters at 401 East M.L. King Blvd. is designed to act as a central hub for programs that improve living conditions for families and economic prosperity.

"ARPA funding will position us to expand our program offerings, ensuring safe and adequate facilities, necessary technology and longer-term sustainability to better serve our program participants and team," the letter said.


Concerns

Wamp said there was some concern about the length of time it was taking for the organizations to distribute those funds.

"It's been about 16 months since that money was allocated to them, the vast majority of the money had sat in the county coffers," Wamp said. "It's not helping anybody in the community by sitting in the county's accounts. ... We have been very clear in our intent to upgrade athletic facilities. We're just going to advocate for students, every time we have an opportunity."

The benefit of the county's investment in athletic facilities is clear, Wamp said, adding it will help students, community organizations and economic development. Wamp doesn't anticipate the County Commission will give the organizations the money back.

"We've made the decision to continue to invest in public school athletes both in urban communities and suburban and rural communities," Wamp said. "And I won't apologize for those investments."

He said expenditures by the Urban League particularly warrant scrutiny, citing office supplies, copiers and a $23,850 glass wall as examples.

"They probably were not good uses of taxpayer dollars," Wamp said. "We're grateful for their role in our community and leadership. ... You can use turf for so many different reasons. We're going to use it to recruit other great events and spur economic development. That all helps our community. I can't say the same thing about the expensive blinds the Urban League bought with the ARPA money."

(READ MORE: Ooltewah, Soddy Daisy high schools to get artificial turf football fields)

In an email, Wamp's spokesperson, Mary Francis Hoots, said Sankofa has been in compliance with federal purchasing guidelines, but "there have been some issues with the Urban League sending receipts that are not in full compliance with spending guidelines related to their (federal pandemic) funding."


Deflection

Johnson said all of the reimbursements the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga has received during the past year were approved by the county purchasing department. They are allowable expenses for capital improvements, equipment purchases and operational needs, she said.

Similar purchases have been made by other organizations that received federal pandemic relief funds from the county, Johnson said. By law, the pandemic funds do not have to be committed until December 2024, she said.

"The county never said that there were issues," she said. "We followed all the protocols asked of us. When you think about programs and training, why would you not need a copy machine?"

About $28,000 in county pandemic funding, Johnson pointed out, funded new auditorium curtains at Daisy Elementary School.

As part of their strategic plan, the Urban League has been trying to focus on the long-term sustainability of its organization. The group doesn't have an endowment and has been reliant on year-to-year fundraising to make ends meet. They didn't have the means to expand programs, she said.

"We saw this ARPA funding as an opportunity once we moved into our first-ever headquarters to not only be a pillar of hope, but also for us to expand our services as a central hub to support families holistically through multiple programs and initiatives," Johnson said. "I do know we're looking at what this means. It will have a negative impact."

The organization is at approximately 70% capacity at its headquarters, she said. It doesn't have room at its building to fully host its tax assistance program. The Urban League also committed to leading a senior workforce program because they were receiving funds from the county.

"When you think about long-term sustainability, that's really what these ARPA dollars were meant to do," Johnson said. "It was really meant to get the money out to the community to help with these longer-term investments."


Turf fields

At a news conference Tuesday morning, Wamp announced four public high schools would get artificial turf fields.

Beyond the field at The Howard School that the County Commission funded Nov. 15, the Hamilton County school board earlier this month entered an agreement with the Hamilton County Schools Funds for Excellence to manage a $2 million donation from U.S. Xpress to install artificial turf football fields at Ooltewah and Soddy Daisy high schools. Tyner Academy is also getting an artificial turf field as part of the construction of its new building.

"Turf is a major step in the direction of putting our public school athletes on a level playing field, putting our public school coaches on a level playing field," Wamp said. "I hope these fields become a point of pride and beauty in these communities."

The county intends to turf all of the main fields at high schools across the community, Wamp said. The County Commission will vote Dec. 6 on whether to allocate $500,000 from taxes on hotel rooms to be used for the field upgrades.


Sorting it out

Commissioner Greg Beck, D-North Brainerd, was the only commissioner to vote against diverting funds. Commissioner David Sharpe, D-Red Bank, stepped out of the room during the discussion that day.

"These sleight-of-hand tactics of taking money from one pocket to put it in another lacks transparency and sews distrust in our community," Sharpe said in a text. "It's bad government, and Hamilton County deserves better. The mayor likes to pat himself on the back for these little projects, but let's not forget that his first budget gave the smallest percentage of the county budget to Hamilton County Schools in over three decades."

Pointing to the "aggressive and legal-threatening posture" of the letter Sankofa and the Urban League sent to county leaders, Helton, who introduced the resolution, said in a phone call Tuesday that he had no comment.

"We're going to get it sorted out in a public forum on the commission floor," he said. "If I had to imagine, it will all be answered (Wednesday)."

The commission meets at 9:30 a.m. at the Hamilton County Courthouse, 625 Georgia Ave.

Contact David Floyd at dfloyd@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

Contact Shannon Coan at scoan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

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