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City manager Phillipe taking nothing for 'grant'ed

Chases money for multiple city obligations
By: Tom Durkin
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When you’re asking the federal government for $19 million, they want a lot of paperwork. Colfax City Manager Joan Phillipe had to assemble a notebook more than six inches thick just to “pre-apply” for a United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development Program grant. It could take months or longer to find out if Colfax will receive any USDA funds. However, Phillipe has gotten a preliminary answer. The USDA rejected many elements of the pre-application, but the agency did clear the way for Colfax to formally apply for $6.1 million in aid to finish rebuilding the city’s wastewater treatment system. “That’s good news,” said Phillipe, a veteran grant-writer. She knows from experience you don’t get every grant and loan you ask for, but she knows you have to ask if you hope to get anything. What’s more, you have to “work” a grant or loan request. That means staying in close contact with the grantors and lenders, getting to know them, earning their trust, asking questions, providing additional documentation, rewriting elements of applications, attending workshops, testifying before government boards and legislative committees – and following up to find out what went wrong if an application is rejected. That also means fighting to keep funding that’s already been awarded. After last summer’s successful ratepayer protest of a sewer fee increase, the powerful State Water Resources Quality Control Board threatened to immediately call due $6 million in loans and $2 million in grants for construction of the city’s wastewater treatment plan. Phillipe led a delegation of city officials, staff, consultants and residents to a meeting in Sacramento. They persuaded the water board to give the city a reprieve while the city proposed a second sewer rate increase. The second rate proposal was successful, thus assuring the water board the city will be able to pay back its loan over time as well as meet its legal obligations to upgrade its wastewater treatment system. “You have to follow through,” Phillipe emphasized, before, during and after a grant or loan is awarded. Although Phillipe pursues loans and grants with equal diligence, her absolute preference is to win grants because grants don’t have to be paid back. This is especially critical with budget-buster projects like the city’s wastewater treatment system. Phillipe definitely does not want to have to propose another increase in sewer fees to the city’s already overburdened and angry ratepayers. Furthermore, a USDA grant or other financial aid could allow the city to help low-income property owners make repairs to leaking private sewer lines that feed into the city system. Such repairs can run into thousands of dollars. While getting grants and loans for the wastewater system takes up much of her time, Phillipe is also chasing money for other critical city obligations, including: paying consultants to update the city’s general plan as required by law; getting money for street repairs and improvements; finding funding for youth programs; and repairing city hall. Phillipe is also actively working to position Colfax for federal aid if the economic stimulus package currently being proposed in the U.S. Congress is enacted. Working with federal legislators, including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Phillipe has found out how to apply and whom to apply to for economic stimulus funds. Even more important, she knows she must propose projects that will meet two critical criteria––projects must start within 90 days to 180 days, and must create local jobs. According to Phillipe, as well as the council members who hired her in 2006, she was chosen to manage Colfax for two specific reasons: her experience as a city manager (Loomis and Colusa) dealing with wastewater issues and general plan updates; and her proven ability to chase down and win grants and loans. During the sewer-rate crisis, state officials referred to Colfax as the “poster child” of bad loan risks. Having proved those officials wrong, Phillipe said recently her goal is to make Colfax the poster child of how to do things right. In fact, her success in negotiating with the state board has led to calls from other communities in similar financial distress seeking her advice. And she has been invited to speak at a conference by the Central Valley Clean Water Association this spring.