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The Online Maps Localities Need for the Big Federal Treasure Hunt

With billions in grants about to start flowing from Washington, they will need comprehensive, timely information on what’s available. They shouldn’t have to wait for the feds to supply it.

Scrabble tiles spelling the word "treasure" on top of a vintage map with a key, compass and coins resting on it.
(Shutterstock)
“On your marks. Get set. … Now, wait.”

Local officials across America are anxiously standing by to see if, what and how much Congress ultimately approves for both infrastructure and the Democrats’ big budget bill. Although some doubt whether the blue factions will compromise, I predict that the sun will indeed rise as it always has and both will be passed, along with a new debt ceiling.

However, until the ink is dry on both statutes and they’re signed by the president, we won’t know the size and precise details of what’s in there. That said, you can expect every local governing body in the country to soon have members from both political parties pontificating about how best to get their community’s fair share and bring home some bacon.

Which brings us immediately to the question of which federal and state offices will be doling out “fair shares” to local units, under what rulebook, and where the bacon will be parked in those grants-in-aid refrigerators. It’s obviously too early to speculate about specifics, and in many cases we won’t know exactly how some of these programs will work until appropriations bills are approved and federal regulations are written and adopted. But now would be a good time for local officials to start “getting ready to get ready” for the Big Treasure Hunt. The best place for most to start is with their municipal and professional associations.

But what about federal resources? Once upon a time (dating back to the 1970s), we had a three-inch-thick paperbound Catalogue of Federal Domestic Assistance (CDFA), which listed all federal grants-in-aid and the agencies that administered them. The CDFA was retired in 2018, and the federal General Services Administration (GSA) was charged with providing similar information online. A web search initially turns up a press release from 2000 guiding the user to cdfa.gov, but that site no longer exists. Further searching turns up guidance to go to the assistance listings on the GSA’s SAM.gov page. SAM (which stands for System for Award Management), provides the capability to search for available grants, but it’s hardly as user friendly as the old paper catalogue — no more casual browsing in search of that obscure grant program that might be a perfect fit for a specific local need.

If updated in a timely way after passage of the infrastructure and budget packages, SAM.gov would be a great place to start, but multiple, accessible facilities tailored to specific local needs would be appreciated by local professionals and elected officials as reliable sources for timely, comprehensive and authoritative information and guidance.

In many cases, Congress will route the federal money to the states, where a state agency will be responsible for grant administration and, for some programs, project selection and distribution of funds. Especially where matching funds are required, this federalist approach has merit. State departments of transportation are a good example: A lot of the road and highway money will funnel through those agencies, rather than directly from the U.S. Department of Transportation to municipalities. But that does not rule out direct grants in aid or clever congressional earmarks yet to be discovered by the media and general public.

So the first order of business for local officials is to start organizing their state associations, such as the various municipal leagues and school board organizations, to begin a dialogue with their respective state agencies and governors to make their grant administration processes as transparent as possible, preferably with statewide websites that display all of the programs available to their local governments. Webinars co-sponsored with or hosted by the associations can spread the word quickly and help ensure a level playing field in the competition for state-administered funding. State treasurers, state school superintendents and state CFOs may also have a role to play in this process, and their efforts to collaborate rather than compete will be appreciated by all their constituencies.

At the national level, we need a comprehensive, thorough, timely catalogue or index of all the federal money that will be administered by federal agencies, with program descriptions, criteria and contact personnel. In some cases, the national professional associations may have to provide such an index themselves, given the slow pace of the federal bureaucracy and the unavoidable process of drafting and approving federal regulations for the new funding. So groups like the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA), the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), the National League of Cities (NLC), the National Association of Counties (NACo) and the national school administrators’ associations could all do their members a great service by working together to provide a common database that they can post across their websites.

Ultimately, a comprehensive federal online resource along the lines of the old paperbound catalogue will be preferable, but an early bird informational initiative run by the national municipal and managerial associations would arguably provide the most benefit in the next six to eight months as the feds get their act together.

In the past, some localities have hired lobbyists to garner funding. In most cases, this is an unnecessary waste of local dollars, when competent and well-informed staff members can identify and explain the available and suitable programs, funding channels, criteria and procedures. If local officials want to hire a consultant to look over the staff’s application forms and suggest substantive and qualitative improvements for cost-effectiveness, that’s defensible tinkering. But let’s try to maximize the amount that gets spent locally and not on K Street and in other lobbyist watering holes. If it’s a zero-sum game at the end of the day, in the sense that all this money will eventually find a home, then finder fees are nothing but a waste of tax dollars and an insult to good government.



Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governings editors or management.
Girard Miller is the finance columnist for Governing. He can be reached at millergirard@yahoo.com.
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