April 24, 2020
Present: Jonathan Barczyk, Ed Barrett, Celeste Branham, David Burns, Julia Fiori, Matthew L’Italien, Jamie Logan, Jessica Nixon, Lisa Phelps, John Portela, Luke Shorty, Maria Staples, Jenifer Tilton-Flood, Margaret Garvey for Anne Ostberg (CNCS).
As authorized under Sec. G-1. 1 MRSA §403-A, the Commission convened using technology. Members of the public joined the meeting by phone.
Public Comment Period. (Branham) The Chair recognized Mary Lee. Mary introduced herself as the newest staff person at the CNCS Regional Office in Concord, NH. Her role is Portfolio Manager and part of her work covers Maine.
Chair Branham called the meeting to order at 10:06 am. After Commission member introductions, it was noted that Michael Ashmore marked 10 years with the Commission on April 5, 2020. There was a round of “Congratulations” from Commissioners. The quiz for Commissioners had two entries and both were correct. Luke Shorty and Lisa Phelps submitted answers. It was noted that AmeriCorps NCCC was created in 1993 (a year before AmeriCorps State) under the Defense Authorization Act.
No additions, deletions or other changes to the agenda were requested. Moved by L’Italien that the published agenda be accepted. Second by Tilton-Flood. The sole comment was that virtual meetings require all votes be roll call. Results of vote on the motion: In favor – Barczyk, Barrett, Burns, Fiori, L’Italien, Logan, Nixon, Phelps, Portela, Shorty, Staples, Tilton-Flood. Opposed – none. Motion approved.
The Consent Agenda published included approval of the Commission business minutes for 12/20/2019, Executive Committee reports from 2/4/2020 and 3/3/2020 and 4/7/2020, three meeting reports (1/30/2020, 2/21/2020, 3/27/2020) from Research and Evaluation Task Force, Financial Oversight’s meeting report for 4/9/2020, the Grant Task Force report for 3/6/2020, and the Maine Service Fellows report from 2/26/2020.
Communications Task Force. The members identified legislation in other states that has helped with attracting and retaining during as well as after service, young people to serve through AmeriCorps. Before moving deeper into preparing the options for legislative action in Maine, the task force wants a sense of whether Commissioners support one or both ideas.
The first proposal would recognize AmeriCorps members who complete a year of service as residents eligible to pay in-state tuition rates at public higher ed institutions. The second proposal would make the Segal Education Award tax exempt for the purposes of state income tax. Under the first proposal, the positive is that education awards would end up with Maine colleges and universities. The hope is the AmeriCorps Alums who stay in Maine for their education would opt to become permanent residents upon graduation. The states with the most experience doing this through legislation are Arizona and Maryland. More recent changes were done by Minnesota and Iowa so they do not have much history yet. Lisa Phelps noted she can help connect task force members to UMaine admissions. It was noted the community colleges would be asked to participate and support. In response to a question about sponsors, it was noted the issue is not ready for a bill yet and wouldn’t be considered until next session which means the November election has to happen first. Added questions and suggestions were to do the fiscal note in advance and consider any impact on tax revenues if the awards were to become tax-exempt. There was an objection to anything that would reduce state revenues. It was noted the task force would come back to the full Commission with information before moving forward. Today the question is whether there is support for looking more closely at both these options. After further discussion, the task force was directed to continue exploring the options and make a final presentation before summer break.
Review of the marketing plan was held for the May meeting due to time. Commissioners are asked to review it beforehand so discussion can focus on questions and clarifications.
Tilton-Flood noted the communications output from Bryan has had quite an impact. Links to all the releases, videos, and other materials can be found on the Commission news page. Bryan was recognized for his efforts and results.
Grant Selection and Performance. The task force is recommending two actions on Commission grant policies. Both were posted with the agenda and board materials. Barrett presented the first one for consideration. The policy in force requires all grantees to have the AmeriCorps program funds audited under (formerly known as) A133 rules. The proposed policy changes are a recognition that the price of such an audit is sometimes 30% of the AmeriCorps grant:
The Grantee is required to have a qualified, independent accounting firm conduct a complete audit for each year of the grant.
If the total of all federal funds in a grantee organization reaches the threshold required* for a Single Audit as described in the Uniform Guidance, the AmeriCorps grant will be audited as part of the A133 audit process.
If the annual total of all federal funds in the grantee organization is $200,000 to $749,000 the grantee is required to have an audit of the AmeriCorps program using the related federal program audit standards.
If the annual grantee total of all federal funds is less than $200,000 including the AmeriCorps grant, the AmeriCorps program must be reviewed using the related program audit standards.
Moved by Barrett that the policy changes as published be approved. Second by Shorty. Vote on the motion: In favor - Barczyk, Barrett, Burns, Fiori, L’Italien, Logan, Nixon, Phelps, Portela, Shorty, Staples, Tilton-Flood. Opposed – none. Abstentions – none. Motion approved.
The second proposal is for a new policy and would require National Service grantees to use the federal vendor only for checking the public National Sex Offender registry. The policy would protect grantees from incomplete or non-compliant checks which are the most frequent findings when they do not notice that a state is offline at the time they query the website. The financial risks are significant for non-compliance so the $7 nominal fee per check by the vendor is considered a good investment. The vendor never presents a non-complaint check. State grantees would continue to use the Maine State Bureau of Identification process which has a lower fee than the second vendor CNCS chose. The new policy reads:
All National Service grantees required to conduct National Criminal History Checks for covered positions (as defined by National Service law and administrative regulation) must check the NSOPW registry through the vendor chosen by the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Moved by Barrett that the policy be approved. Second by Tilton-Flood. Vote on the motion: In favor - Barczyk, Barrett, Burns, Fiori, L’Italien, Logan, Nixon, Phelps, Portela, Shorty, Staples, Tilton-Flood. Opposed – none. Abstentions – none. Motion approved.
Discussion shifted to Commission feedback to CNCS regarding applications by national nonprofits to operate AmeriCorps programs in Maine. They are known as AmeriCorps National directs. The law requires the applicants to consult with the Commission. Our policy frames our feedback. CNCS provides three choices on the feedback and Maine policy defines those: Support – the organization consults as required and the program supports a Commission funding priority; Neutral – the organizations consults as required but the program is not one of Maine’s priorities; Do Not Support – the organizations do not consult with the Commission which also means we have no information about the proposal. The 2020 feedback for every national direct was published with the agenda for Commissioners.
A question posed during discussion was whether the two proposals that were not supported were notified. The response was that CNCS handles that side of things.
Staff were asked to address a later agenda item related to grants at this time.
The competition for AmeriCorps Rural grants and Standard grants closed on April 15. Of the expected 4 applicants, only one submitted. Staff reached out to organizations who did not submit and learned it was due to their agency disruption as quarantine and COVID19 response changes set in. Under procurement policy, because this competition did not receive applications to meet the purposes of the RFP, the Commission can work directly with organizations that would have applied and accept proposals. The sole applicant submitted under Fixed Amount which leaves no applicants under Cost Reimbursement or Rural grants. Staff will work with interested community agencies to submit applications by end of May. Those need to be reviewed by the Commission and considered for funding at the June meeting.
On April 15 (the submission deadline for AmeriCorps in Maine), CNCS announced a change in its 15 yo policy related to planning grants made by Commissions. The change means Volunteer Maine can issue an RFP for Planning Grants and, because of a second change that waives match requirements, these can be fully funded by AmeriCorps Formula funds. The planning grant competition will open around May 11 and be due around June 11. The advantage for applicants is they can support assigning someone to work on the project preparation and submit to a 2021 competition. These will have to be reviewed in a very short window in order for the vote to occur on June 19, the Commission meeting. Staff are recommending grants of up to $50,000 with no funding preferences so communities could identify their needs.
In the discussion that followed, staff were asked if the future programs could be used for revitalization and they can. Another Commissioner asked if match for the operating grant would be suspended for the future year. The answer is “it depends.” If the current funding ratio stays in place, suspension of match is a moot point because the amount per member is $5,000 short of the cost of supporting a person serving full-time. This means grantees must put up a 25% match just to have members.
There is a new piece of legislation in Congress that would fix critical things. Among other things the bill would make the AmeriCorps living allowance equal 175% of the poverty level – moving it from $14,000 to $21,000 – and augment the cost per member with funds to cover the insurances and FICA. This point along would make the program viable for many rural organizations.
In answer to a question about how much money is available for the grants proposed, it was noted that there is about $200,000 in FY2019 funds from Axiom who pulled out in August and $250,000 unallocated so far from the full $716,000 for FY2020.
Financial Oversight Task Force. The task force met on April 8 and reviewed the budget expenditures through February 28. Concerns raised included the impact of cancelled events on the grantee share and the fragility of the state budget and what that may mean for the funds we got for the first time. The financial statements were updated through March 31 when data became available after the task force meeting. The updated versions were emailed to Commissioners 24 hours before this meeting. The chair asked for questions or clarifications. A member asked what happens if the grantee share for the Commission operating grant is not met this year. It was explained that this grant is one of those for which the match is waived for this year. In a follow up question and answer, it was noted that any match we do generate can be – and has to be – put towards the match shortfall in 2019. The shortage was totally in-kind and why cancellation of some events is increasing the in-kind shortfall.
A Commissioner asked if the in-kind time of board members could be used as in-kind match. There are other federal grants that allow it. For this grant, time may not be used under the federal law because the intent of the Commission is to generate volunteers. The same principle applies to AmeriCorps grants and Volunteer Generation. That said, the reimburseable mileage that Commissioners donate is counted as in-kind for the grant. Also, any non-board skills such as video production could count as pro bono service.
On behalf of the Task Force, Luke Shorty led an orientation to financial statements for new Commissioners earlier this week. He proposes a second session which will be scheduled before the next meeting.
Research and Evaluation Task Force. The action item for the meeting was approval of the task force’s proposed mission. Shorty spoke on behalf of the members and acknowledged the draft mission is the work of a volunteer member, Nathan Hinchey. There were two options in the task force report but only option one is being proposed for consideration. It reads:
The Research and Evaluation Task Force:
- Identifies issues related to Maine’s volunteer sector and Commission grantees that require additional research.
- Collects and analyzes data on volunteerism and civic engagement.
- Develops and oversees research and evaluation projects to address key issues.
Moved by Shorty to approve the proposed mission for the Research and Evaluation task force. Second by Portela. There were no questions or comments. Vote on the motion: In favor - Barczyk, Barrett, Burns, Fiori, L’Italien, Logan, Nixon, Phelps, Portela, Shorty, Staples, Tilton-Flood. Opposed – none. Abstentions – Branham. Motion approved.
National Public Policy issues. Portela reported ASC is supporting the legislative ideas reported earlier in this meeting. There is also a proposed increase in AmeriCorps members over three years to 750,000 and giving state commissions significantly more flexibility. One authority would let commissions place single AmeriCorps members in a non-competitive way so states can respond to emergencies or natural disasters in less than the one year timeline it now takes.The timeline for consideration is uncertain since Congress is having to figure out the COVID 1 requirements of being in session.
There is another bill in Congress that adds to the first set described. The education award would be increased to equal two years of tuition at any public institution. The aim is to have a person serve one year and be able to attend two years post secondary education. The expansion of AmeriCorps is ambitious but consistent with thinking around the need for a New Deal WPA-type program. The unemployment rates are expected to persist and expanding an existing program through states could be more efficient than setting up something new.
On another topic, the Public Comments (ASC and Commission) submitted regarding proposed rule changes for conducting criminal history background checks were posted with meeting materials Branham asked if there were questions or clarifications or discussion. No requests were made.
Volunteer Maine Staff. Commission staff are in the office most of the time because the space allows for social distancing. Jamie McFaul gave a summary of how AmeriCorps programs adapted their service in her staff report. One program is unable to continue – MidCoast Conservancy. It’s critical partner was the schools who are now closed. Most programs have adapted service to meet new community needs and it is permissible under the emergency waivers and policy changes. It appears Maine Conservation Corps will curtail operations. The biggest challenge for Commission staff has been keeping up with the CNCS policy changes that are weekly sometimes daily or several times in a day.
Michael gave a summary of staff involvement in the State Emergency Response. The work has consumed about 90% of his time. The Commission arranged for purchase and deployment of an online coordination platform. Maine Ready was set up and launched four days after acquiring it. Continuing role is helping community agencies register on the platform and list their needs for assistance. The requests have ranged from drivers to the SMART (state of Maine animal response team) need for volunteers to milk cows when farm workers are ill. Jeni Tilton-Flood has been helping coordinate the latter. Bryan is handling all the messaging and social media as well as recruitment of AmeriCorps Alums and tracking down AmeriCorps NCCC members sent home to Maine. The supplemental VGF grants to support COVID response in communities were very well timed. Commissioners thanked Volunteer Maine staff for their commitment and efforts.
The June public forum will switch to a virtual event to accommodate restrictions on the size of gatherings. Jamie and Bryan are designing a virtual AmeriCorps recruitment fair to take place at the end of May.
After discussions with the Service Fellows Task Force, the design think tank work will be suspended. There is one outside chance of getting a funder to support launch but most funding has been refocused on immediate needs. If some of the Congressional changes make it into law, it will be possible to fill some gaps with AmeriCorps members as part of the growth.
CNCS Update. Maggie (Margaret) Garvey reported. She is the director for the regional office which has been open for six months. They are still filling staff vacancies and hope to have a full team shortly. Anne Ostberg is unable to attend today because the commission in New Hampshire is meeting at the same time.
As everyone knows, CNCS has undertaken a rebrand project in conjunction with a firm, Brand Pie. Surveys of constituents and the public showed 81% believe brand unification would help and 80% of community residents do not know what AmeriCorps or National Service is. The timeline was on track before the pandemic and potential brand designs were presented to headquarters. The work has all been tabled until COVIC-19 calms down. In answer to a question about roll out, Garvey said it isn’t clear. The new look will not be much of a shock and there is recognition that rebranding at all levels has a cost. So much is uncertain and on hold.
Garvey gave some quick updates about programs. Most VISTAs are teleworking or supporting food security programs. Senior Corps has participant safety as a top priority and the programs are adapting.
Maria Staples, Commissioner and an FGP director, thanked Garvey for the rapid CNCS response to their concerns and need to change service.
Planning and Future Initiatives,
Discussion of Commission budget authority status. Volunteer Maine has had two fiscal agents in the past 25 years. The question is about whether to pursue budget authority and become fully responsible for operations. The Commission pays for 97% of expenses now – occupancy, insurance, accounting and human resources, audits, equipment, etc. Many state commissions (Historic Preservation, Human Rights, etc.) have their own budget authority and manage the full administration. The current fiscal agent, Dept. of Education, does assist with compiling financial reports, interfacing with DAFS budget office and financial hearings at the legislature.
Branham asked for thoughts from Commissioners. There was a discussion of the pros and cons. Any change would require statutory amendment because the assignment of a fiscal agent is in the Commission statute. After further discussion, there was consensus that more detail was needed and there is time to explore because the issue would not come up until next session. Financial Oversight was asked to investigate and report back at a later date.
Business Wrap Up. The next meeting will be May 15, 2020. It is hoped we can meet in person but, if not, will use virtual means again. There being no more business, the chair called for a motion to adjourn. Moved by Portela and second by Tilton-Flood. Vote on the motion: Barczyk, Barrett, Phelps, Portela, Shorty, Staples, Tilton-Flood. Opposed – none. Abstentions – none. Motion approved. The meeting adjourned at 12:31 pm.