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Loyal may be next school to go after FEMA funds

Spencer received federal grant money to build a new dome structure to house a new gymnasium and other school uses, lots of it. Owen-Withee got a bunch, too. So did Abbotsford.

The Loyal School District may be the next area entity to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant dollars to build a school addition, although exactly what purpose it would serve has yet to be decided. What Loyal does know is there is money to be had — about $550 million over the next two years — and it would behoove it to move soon to potentially get some of it. The very first step in the process was taken last week.

After hearing an Oct. 21 presentation from a Spencer Board of Education member who has now written four successful FEMA grants in the past two years, the Loyal Board of Education passed a motion to begin the application process. That action does not bind the district to any further commitments, but allows it to begin the process of seeing how much money it could potentially get.

Jordan Buss was a relatively new member of the Spencer Board of Education a few years ago when he first investigated a FEMA grant program about which he had heard. With the Spencer district in need of a new gymnasium and other educational space, Buss researched the grant and directed the district through the application process, with Spencer eventually receiving $2.93 million toward an overall referendum building project of $5.98 million. Buss then created his own side business to help other schools explore grants, and last year helped Owen-Withee get $1.93 million, Abbotsford secure a $2.19 million award, and the Luck School District obtain $2.22 million in FEMA funds.

He sees no reason why Loyal couldn’t be next.

The funds Buss secured for the four districts were through FEMA’s pre-disaster mitigation fund program. The structures to be built at each school will also serve as community emergency storm shelters as FEMA seeks ways to lessen the financial impact of severe storm events. In Spencer, for example, the FEMA grant will cover the costs of building a concrete dome structure that is capable of withstanding tornado winds, while the school district will pay for the interior costs of the gymnasium, bleachers and other school uses.

Buss said the grant program is a federal attempt to break the cycle in which a community is devastated by a storm, rebuilds, and is then destroyed again by a storm.

“It’s their way of tackling the problem before it happens,” Buss said. Funding for the pre-disaster mitigation program has ended, but FEMA is now offering a new program called the Build Resilient Infrastructure and Community(BRIC) grants. Buss said funding has been increased, to $550 million in the coming two years.

“They have more than doubled the amount of available funding with this new grant program,” Buss told the Loyal Board last week. “I think it’s a very good year to really apply for any project.”

He did note that the fund pot is for the entire nation and the grant program is “highly competitive.”

To possibly get funding in the next cycle, Loyal would have to submit a completed application by Jan. 22, 2021. It would also have to meet a Nov. 20 preliminary deadline to alert the Wisconsin Emergency Management agency that it intends to apply to FEMA. Buss said the district is not too late to get started to meet those deadlines.

“You really aren’t that far behind at all,” he said.

A first step Loyal would need to take is to decide what purpose a new building would serve. The Board has been looking at various facility and athletic needs over the past few years, but has made no decisions on priorities. Buss said the grant program is very flexible on what a structure could house. Spencer is using its award for the new gym and other uses, while the Johnson Creek School District in southern Wisconsin houses its entire school system in a series of domes.

“They have more than doubled the amount of available funding with this new grant program. I think it’s a very good year to really apply for any project.” -- FEMA grant consultant Jordan Buss Buss also noted that a structure need not be in the shape of a concrete dome, although a dome is the most efficient and strongest design for a large space. It could also be a traditional square/rectangular structure, as long as it is designed and built of material that would withstand high winds.

“It can be whatever you want it to be,” Buss said.

Board member Tom Odeen said the district needs to decide for what it might use such a building.

“Until we’re really knowing what we want to do, it’s hard to put together the application,” Odeen said.

Buss advised the Board to first determine if there is interest in pursuing a grant. If so, the district should explore its facility needs and identify priorities, and then settle on a timeline for when to build. A project would require a significant amount of local funds, as the FEMA grant will only pay the direct costs of the storm shelter. Buss said the district could wait until the second year of the 2-year grant program to go after funds.

“Let that timeline decide what year to apply,” he said.

If the district were to successfully apply, it could expect to receive a grant that would pay for 75 percent of the cost of building the safe room. There is also a provision through which “small impoverished communities” can get 90 percent of the costs covered. To meet that criteria, a community has to have fewer than 3,000 residents and have per capita income below a certain level. Buss said Loyal meets those criteria, but also would have to be above a certain local unemployment rate. That could be tricky to prove, Buss said, as there is no unemployment data for small towns, but he thinks it could be done.

“I’m pretty confident that Loyal would qualify for that,” Buss said.

FEMA would only fund a safe room of a size that would serve the local population. Buss said that is based on the number of residents within a half-mile radius of the shelter building location, as well as the number of people that would be expected to be at local businesses at a given time, and the number of students/staff at the school.

Based on his preliminary calculations, Buss said he would expect Loyal would qualify for a shelter of 10,750 square feet. At current new construction costs, and a 75 percent grant, that would mean a potential award of roughly $1.9 million. The local community would then be responsible for about $662,000 in local money to equip the space for whatever use the district decides. That could be for a library, classroom space, a gym, etc.

“It would be really whatever you want it to be,” Buss said.

The only “catch” would be that the school would have to have the structure prepared at all times for sudden community emergency use.

Buss also noted that the school could go with a bigger structure, but FEMA would only pay its portion of the size needed to serve the given population. Loyal would then have to make up the rest locally.

FEMA requires that grants be run through a municipality, so the Loyal School District would have to work with the city of Loyal. The city would actually be the formal grant applicant, but would act as a “pass-through entity” at no cost. In the Spencer case, the village of Spencer is the formal recipient.

Buss also told the Board that it has nothing to lose in at least exploring a grant possibility. Even if it applies, and its application is accepted, it could still back out with no penalty.

“It’s a tremendously flexible program,” Buss said. “You can decline the grant at any time prior to breaking ground. There’s no risk in actually pursuing it. You can decline at any time if you are awarded it.”

District administrator Chris Lindner recommended to the Board that it take a first step toward applying.

“I think we need to move on it,” Lindner said. “I think now we need to look at what are we looking at putting in there.”