Bushfire relief funding is so complex, professional grant writers are being hired to help communities apply

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Almost a year on from the deadly summer bushfires of 2019-20, some weary communities are having to hire professional grant writers or relying on volunteers to fill out complex grant applications.

The New South Wales Government is overseeing the rollout of several joint state and federally-funded grants for bushfire-affected towns, where some residents are still living in tents and caravans.

The community of Cobargo now have one full-time and other part-time volunteers to help them apply for some of the $250 million set aside for NSW in the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund to rebuild their main street and to build a bushfire refuge.

But they will have to compete against their own local government, the Bega Valley Shire Council, which is trying to use the fund to bid for existing council projects, like roadworks and tourism funding.

Communities asking for help

The Cobargo community is being supported by Australian Business Volunteers, a not-for-profit group being funded by private companies to assist communities with complicated grant applications.

Chief executive Liz Mackinlay said the New South Wales Government is not providing any funding to help communities complete the detailed project analysis the government is asking for.

“I have a full-time staff member based down in the Bega Valley supporting this work because that is how much effort it’s actually taking,” she said.

“We met with some other communities last week who were asking for help.

“We are a small not-for-profit so I can only do so much.”

Councils and communities competing for the same funding

The Bega Valley Shire Council has endorsed the projects the Cobargo community is applying for, but it is also entering the same fund with its own requests.

A spokeswoman for the council said it voted in November to enter some existing projects, including $13 million for road sealing and another $13 million for a CBD upgrade in a town unaffected by bushfires.

“These projects … are focused on council-owned community assets and infrastructure including road upgrades, cultural and recreational projects, tourism and business support projects, a coastal restoration project and town improvements,” the spokeswoman said.

“Council has supported community groups through a number of grant-writing training opportunities and has also promoted grant training opportunities from other organisations, such as Red Cross.”

The criteria for the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund makes it clear that projects “for the day-to-day delivery of essential or core local government services” are not eligible.

Ms Mackinlay said she hoped those assessing the grant applications stick to the criteria in making a decision.

“I think it is going to be really important that we all pay attention to how the funding is allocated out,” she said.

“I am hopeful there is a really good dialogue between the communities and the councils about what the priorities are.”

Federal Member for Gilmore Fiona Phillips, whose electorate is north of the Bega Valley area, said the fact under-resourced community groups were competing against local councils for the same bucket of money was a “real issue” for her constituents too.

“Councils do great work but I think we have to be mindful here that we have got communities that are fractured and they have done through so much,” Ms Phillips said.

“The least we can do is make sure their views are taken into account.”

‘A lot of people are just exhausted’

Just south of Cobargo, Quaama resident Veronica Abbott is trying to get money through a NSW Government scheme called Resilience NSW, for a bush dance and yoga classes for the tiny town.

The local business owner did grant applications in her former job in the public service but said what the NSW Government was asking for was unusually complex.

“Our stumbling point is something they are calling an ’embedded evaluation process’,” Ms Abbott said.

“That is something that from a community organisation perspective is not common in a lot of the other community grant processes.”

She is spending all her spare time on the grant application, with the knowledge that few others in her community have the financial or mental capability to do it.

“A lot of people are just exhausted.

“If we don’t get an application in or it is not a good one, we are going to miss out on things our community really needs.”

Ms Mackinlay wants the New South Wales Government to give communities money to help with the grant application process, so they don’t miss out.

Those applying to the Bushfire Local Economic Recovery Fund were initially only given six weeks but the deadline has been extended to January.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Regional NSW, overseen by Deputy Premier John Barilaro, said a number of grants had been extended to help communities and it had deployed staff to help local councils.

“Twenty-two Community Recovery Officers have been deployed to impacted regions, where they have been embedded in local councils to play a key role in coordinating and facilitating community-led projects, activities and events.

“The work of the officers has laid the groundwork for greater community resilience and future disaster preparedness, with staff providing direct assistance to communities who are considering applying for grant programs,” the spokeswoman said.

“Throughout 2020 the NSW Government has actively encouraged philanthropists and the not-for-profit sector to contribute support to bushfire recovery efforts and assist communities to develop community-based projects and apply for grants.”

To date, approximately $4.4 billion has been committed to bushfire recovery efforts in NSW, with $3 billion provided by the NSW Government.

By Isobel Roe (Original ABC Article)