FORT KENT – Outrage by U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe over a decision to deny a Fort Kent-based substance abuse prevention organization a grant because of its rural location has propelled the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s administrator to investigate the matter.
The decision came after Community Voices, which works to curb substance abuse among youth, applied for a $125,000 competitive grant from NHTSA to create a pilot program to limit teen access to alcohol. The grant would have financed several projects, including increased patrols by local law enforcement. Community Voices met all of the requirements to secure the grant but was denied, so officials from the organization asked for information on how to improve future applications and better their chances at future awards.
The grants went to organizations in Mason City, Iowa, and Louisville, Ky.
According to Snowe, PerformTech, the Alexandra, VA-based contractor responsible for deciding which communities receive funding, emailed a response that rankled the Republican senator.
In the response, a contractor from PerformTech told officials from Community Voices that their grant proposal was “quite strong” and “in the top 4 and was the subject of a lot of discussion.” The contractor even told Community Voices that Fort Kent would likely be a “very rich laboratory for certain research projects.”
At the same time, the PowerTech contractor continued, “The other issue was one I’m sure you’ve run into with other projects: Fort Kent is WAAAAAAYY off the beaten path. The panel felt that the logistics of getting our staff and consultants there and back was just too time consuming and expensive, compared with other communities. This factor would have been less important had the final four proposals been more disparate, but, as the ratings were quite close, the panel ultimately leaned toward ‘convenience.’”
The assumption that Fort Kent was too rural to receive the grant did not sit well with Snowe. Earlier this week, she called for an immediate and thorough review of the NHTSA’s procedures for awarding competitive grants. She also spoke on Wednesday afternoon with NHTSA Administrator David Strickland about the contractor’s remarks.
“This community group met all the stated requirements for this competitive grant, but the application was denied because a government contractor stated the town is too far ‘off the beaten path’ and would be ‘inconvenient’ for contractors to visit,” Snowe wrote in a statement. “The people of our rural communities have just as much to lose to substance abuse as urban areas. Denying Fort Kent the grant award because of their proximity to a major metropolitan area is wrong, it is unfair, and I have asked Administrator Strickland to fix the situation immediately.”
“This is outrageous and disheartening that a rural community would be denied a grant because someone thinks it is inconvenient to get there and Administrator Strickland, who was horrified by this information, has agreed to conduct an immediate and full evaluation with his staff and chief legal counsel and report back to me in one week,” she continued.
Snowe said that Strickland also agreed to travel to Fort Kent to discuss the grant award process in person. A spokesman for the senator said Friday that she was not sure when that would happen.
Community Voices is made up of volunteers and has helped institute a number of programs to curb underage drinking and drug use. The group was instrumental in helping to amend a state law last year to classify a certain beverage as an imitation liquor and keep it out of the hands of minors. An imitation liquor is any product “containing less than ½ of 1 percent alcohol by volume which seeks to imitate by appearance, taste and smell of liquor or which is designed to carry the impression to the purchaser that the beverage has an alcohol content.”
Don Guimond, Fort Kent’s town manager, said Friday that Community Voices has worked hard to align all of the agencies that rally against youth substance abuse.
“When I saw the response from the contractor, I had to reread it to make sure I was really seeing what I was seeing,” he said. “I had never heard that before. I had never had anyone come out and say you didn’t get the grant because you are too rural, too inconvenient. You always wonder if that is the real reason behind the fact that you didn’t get a grant, but in this case, it was. At the same time, I admire the candor of the contractor.”
Michelle Plourde-Chasse, the project manager of Community Voices, said she put more than 160 hours into the grant proposal.
“I was stunned by the email from the contractor,” she said Friday. “They should have told us upfront that they didn’t plan to give it to a group in a rural area. At the same time, this has kind of soured me on the process. I am angry that our location worked against us. It shouldn’t have.”
She added that the group will continue to advocate to keep alcohol and other drugs out of the hands of youth.
“We are certainly not going to let this deter us,” she said.
PerformTech did not respond to a request for comment Friday.