Douglas County commissioners divided on Heritage Grants
A divided Douglas County Commission on Wednesday awarded $276,250 in grants to local organizations to help preserve historic cultural and natural resources, including an 1869 community building in East Lawrence and 266 acres of hardwood forest near Baldwin City.
The money comes from the county's Natural and Cultural Heritage Grant program, which is funded out of the county's general operating budget with local property tax revenues.
The largest grant, for $125,000, will go to the Lawrence Preservation Alliance to partially restore the Lawrence Turnhalle at 900 Rhode Island St.
The building was used into the early part of the 20th century to host an athletics club, or "turnverein," organized by the city's German-American community.
Dennis Brown, president of the Lawrence Preservation Alliance, said turnvereins — also known to English speakers as "Turner Societies" — were common in many parts of the United States, dating back to the 1840s when many Germans came to the U.S. to flee political repression in central Europe.
Another grant, for $72,000, will go to Kansas University Center for Research, Inc., for preservation of a hardwood forest area known as the Baldwin Woods, described as "one of the best examples of original oak-hickory forest in northeast Kansas."
The landowners have agreed to sell permanent conservation easements to the land. Those easements would be managed by the Kansas Biological Survey at KU.
The county's grant will meet part of a 25-percent local match needed to draw down $500,000 in federal funds awarded to the Kansas Forest Service last year. County officials said the state forest service, housed at Kansas State University, has committed that entire amount to the Baldwin Woods project, provided the matching funds can be secured.
Commissioners Mike Gaughan and Nancy Thellman, both Democrats, voted to approve the grants, but Commissioner Jim Flory, the lone Republican, voted no, saying the grants will come at the expense of social and health care service programs.
"We have a tough budget session coming up in July," Flory said. "We're going to be faced with raising the mill levy just to provide the existing level of service. We're going to be faced with cutting some social service agencies and human service agencies."
County officials have said they expect to see a $3 million to $4 million drop in property tax revenues for next year's budget due to a readjustment of appraised valuations this year.
Thellman, however, said she believes the commission can balance
"I think we all have concerns about the budget," Thellman said. "Every year I've been on the commission there have been concerns about the budget, but I don't think that should stop us from moving ahead on the other important aspects of county work like roads and all the other things we do. I think we do a good job of balancing our work."