Kootenai County boasts $15 million in grant dollars on the books right now, funding equipment, personnel and programs that would otherwise be covered by local taxpayers.
The county commissioners wonder if that could be higher.
"The county has been receiving approximately $15 million in grants for the last several years, a very consistent number," said Commissioner Dan Green. "I'd like to increase that number."
Green has spearheaded an effort to analyze the county's grant-application process, to determine if it could be retooled to bring in more dollars.
The commissioners approved hiring consultant Jody Bieze on Tuesday to assist with the analysis.
"I'm not sure there is a better way," Green acknowledged. "But if I don't understand it completely, I can't be sure."
The investigation will include determining how many folks are involved in the grant writing process, Green said, how research is done and if there are grants the county could be applying for, but isn't.
There is a sense of urgency with the project, the commissioner added, as county Grant Writer Colleen Allison has announced her pending retirement at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
"I don't want to go out and hire one person to replace Colleen, if there's a better way to do things," Green said, adding that he hopes to make recommendations before Allison leaves.
Commissioner Todd Tondee said he supports the analysis and is interested in any ideas it will bring up.
"With Colleen retiring, I think it's a good time to be doing it," he said. "We have several million dollars that we're administering in grants, so it's a big part of our process."
Allison, county grant writer for the past 12 years, said she spends about 10 hours a week hunting down available grants, some from the federal government, the state or foundations.
She usually writes the grant applications herself, she said. But sometimes department heads write them, or the 10 other grant writers within county departments.
Much effort is invested in researching the need that grants could satisfy, she added.
"The whole basis is, whoever writes it, whether I write it or one of the grant writers in their department, you've got to have a fire in the belly for the program," said Allison, who also wrote grants when she was mayor of Columbia Falls, Mont. "You write a better grant (application) if you're really enthusiastic about a program."
If a grant is awarded, Allison keeps a "report card" of how it is used, she said, by keeping up with quarterly reports from departments and tracking financing to confirm the reports are true.
"That's a big part of my job," she said, adding that the federal government has given the county an A plus rating for grant management.
The county applies for about 200 grants a year, she estimated.
"Of that, you're lucky to get 50 percent," she said. "Everybody else in the world is writing them (applications), too, every other city and county."
Nick Snyder, director of county Parks and Waterways, said he writes all grant applications for his department.
That's how he prefers it, he added, since he oversees projects from their beginning to end.
"It's important for the project manager to have oversight of the grant, so the ideas and the concept and the end result is memorialized in the grant," he said.
Snyder doesn't see any problems with how the county currently applies for grants, he added.
"The process has been very accommodating," he said. "The commissioners have been very supportive of our projects, and have been helpful throughout the process."
Obtaining grants is crucial for the Sheriff's Department, said Lt. Stu Miller, due to increasing demand coinciding with shrinking budgets.
"It's an ongoing battle," Miller said. "It seems like all the time we're trying to find funding."
Allison has helped the department obtain much needed equipment and personnel that probably wouldn't otherwise be possible, he added.
But the Sheriff's Department would love to have a grant writer just for its department, he added, to focus only on finding law enforcement dollars.
"When you're processing grants for as many departments as Colleen does, it can be hard to focus on one department," Miller said, adding that Sheriff's staff members don't have much time for pursuing grant applications themselves. "It would nice if we had a little more assistance in that realm."
Allison said she is proudest of grant writing successes like obtaining $374,000 in stimulus funds to reroof several county buildings last year. She has also obtained grants to fund the hiring of 10 officers at the Sheriff's Department over the last 12 years, she added.
"It's a good feeling when you get them," she said.
Allison is ready to retire at 83, she said, though she is open to working part time for the county later if her help is needed.
She didn't have any suggestions for improving the grant writing process, she added.
"I've totally enjoyed this job," Allison said. "I'm proud of any grant I've gotten."