Texas towns are starving for capital and lack the resources to apply for grants. This group hopes to help.

An aerial view of Groveton, in East Texas, on March 20. Across rural Texas, small governments are struggling to fund costly infrastructure projects. (Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune, Mark Felix For The Texas Tribune)

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LUFKIN — One month into her term as mayor of Zavalla, Brenda Cox says she’s certain about one thing: Zavalla needs money.

High on Cox’s list of priorities is replacing two decades-old water storage tanks that have rusted. The replacements cost about $100,000, and it’s not yet clear where the rural East Texas town of about 700 residents will get that money.

“Every time we need something, it’s like, is there a grant available?” Cox said. “Money is limited.”

Funding gaps are not unique to Zavalla. Across rural Texas, small governments struggle to fund costly infrastructure projects, including repairing broken water lines, connecting far-flung homes to the internet or investing in more affordable housing. Federal and state grants can be a lifeline, but figuring out which grants a municipality is eligible for and then completing the often arduous process of writing the grant application requires time and resources that small governments don’t always have. Applicants then wait months, or even years, to find out if they were awarded a grant.

The complexity of the grant process helps explain why some programs go unfunded, especially in small towns that have limited tax revenue. Rural programs that do secure funding often do so through collaboration with private partners or innovative ideas.

Texas Rural Funders, a nonprofit focused on rural philanthropy, launched a resource this month to help rural towns and nonprofits navigate some of the barriers to securing grant money. Called the Grants Hub, the new webpage includes a roster of federal and state grants that rural entities can apply for.

The resource is already accessible, and Texas Rural Funders will host a virtual meeting on June 28 to walk through how to use it and other online tools, said Kelty Garbee, executive director of Texas Rural Funders.

About 50 federal and state grant opportunities are listed on the roster, along with 17 grant writers who can be hired to assist rural governments or organizations with grant applications. Those grant writers applied to be on the list and all have track records of securing federal grants. More grants and grant writers will be added to the list each month, Garbee said.

The launch comes on the heels of a legislative session in which state lawmakers set aside crucial funding for infrastructure projects, especially in rural areas. Lawmakers passed bills to provide $1.5 billion to expand broadband throughout the state through a new Broadband Infrastructure Fund. They also allocated $1 billion for new water projects and repairing aging water infrastructure. Both funds require voter approval in the fall.

Federal infrastructure dollars are also flowing to Texas. The state is expected to receive about $2.5 billion for water infrastructure through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. And this month, the Biden administration will announce how it’ll distribute more than $42 billion in broadband infrastructure grants. With the largest rural population in the country, Texas is expected to receive billions of those dollars.

It is not inevitable that those grant dollars reach rural communities. Federal grant applications often require hours of work and technical expertise that rural places lack.

“In rural areas, there’s a human capital challenge because people wear multiple hats,” Garbee said. She added that the new grant roster could help towns save time they might otherwise have to spend scouring government agencies’ websites to understand what opportunities are available.

Vivian Bush, a grant writer from the Cypress area, is one of the vetted grant writers listed on the Texas Rural Funders website. She said she typically charges her clients for at least 60 hours of work for federal grants and five to ten hours of work for grants from private foundations. Federal grants tend to require more information, including a detailed budget and narrative.

“They want to know in great detail how you’re going to spend the money,” Bush said. “Usually they’ll want a pretty extensive narrative, which might be anywhere from 10 pages to 70 pages.”

Government grants also often require the applicant to spend money before it can get the funding. Some also require grantees to fund a portion of the project themselves. Each of those requirements can shut rural towns out of the application process altogether.

Denise Milton, director of the city of Jasper’s public library, recalled trying to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand the library. After spending money to conduct a feasibility study, Milton said, the Jasper City Council said it didn’t have the budget to provide the required matching dollars to apply for the multimillion-dollar grant.

Milton has instead focused her energy on grants that don’t require matching dollars. Last year, the library was awarded a $10,000 grant from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and Milton said she’s now working on applying for a $44,000 private grant.

Some rural areas have found success with the grant process through strategic partnerships and creativity. In Pottsboro, a North Texas town of about 2,600 people, public library director Dianne Connery secured a $20,000 federal grant to create a telehealth program within the library at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Patients can now use a private room in the library to conduct virtual doctor’s appointments.

“We love to innovate, so we always have proposals that catch people’s attention,” Connery said. “We weren’t asking for the same thing everybody else was asking for.”

For federal grants that require matching funds, Connery has experimented with public-private partnerships. She applied for a broadband grant with a local internet service provider. The partnership allows the private entity to access public dollars, and it gives Connery the matching dollars she’d otherwise not have.

That public-private partnership model is one that Lillian Salerno, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development director for Texas, also advanced. In February, Salerno was part of the inaugural East Texas Water Summit hosted by the USDA and the T.L.L. Temple Foundation. Part of the conversation was about helping rural areas access USDA dollars.

“If you’re a small town and you’ve never applied, it’s very hard,” Salerno said. “We’re trying to help get people to a level where they can apply for the funds. We’re not all starting at the same starting gate.”

She said rural towns could leverage philanthropic dollars from foundations in order to supply the matching funds needed to apply for a USDA grants. “It’s the only way we can get this done,” Salerno said. “Is it easy? No. But it has to be done.”

Back in Zavalla, Cox said she will soon be assessing which organization or governmental agency the town can turn to for help with the new water tanks.

“We’re going to try to beg,” she said. “But I don’t know where to beg yet.”

Disclosure: Texas Rural Funders have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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