Gwen Mack of Riverhead, who operates the Church of the Harvest food pantry, asked the town board for Community Development Block Grant funding at the Oct. 16 public hearing.

The town’s application for Community Development Block Grant funding is usually a routine and uncontroversial process. The town board holds a public hearing, community nonprofit groups make their pitches for a slice of the grant pie and the town board adopts a resolution authorizing the grant application naming the community groups to be funded and the amount of the funding to be distributed to each group. 

Not this year.

A battle broke out over which groups should be funded and how the decision gets made.

The town board work session last Thursday grew heated as board members debated which charitable causes would receive money from the grant and employees of the community development department got into the fray.

The discussion grew tense at the Nov. 27 work session, with community development director Dawn Thomas and her staff at odds with Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith over the CDBG resolution. Photo: Denise Civiletti

 Community development director Dawn Thomas submitted a draft resolution to the board on Oct. 22 with recommendations for seven local non-profit groups to receive $8,000 each. 

The organizations on the CDA’s list for the application included Bread and More Soup Kitchen, Open Arms Care Center Food Pantry, Riverhead Community Awareness Program, Catholic Home Care (formerly Dominican Sisters), Maureen’s Haven, Butterfly Effect Project, and — a new entry —The Retreat. The application also includes the town’s home improvement program and parking and pedestrian improvements to receive $100,000 each. The application would seek total funding of $256,000 from the county, which administers the federal CDBG program. 

But the resolution on last week’s work session agenda had an additional organization tacked on: the Church of the Harvest food pantry.  Gwen Mack, who runs the food pantry there attended the Oct. 16 public hearing and requested CBDG funding for the first time.

Thomas and her office’s two staff members objected to the addition.  

Thomas explained that CDBG guidelines allow for 15% of funding to go to public service groups (local non-profit organizations). This year’s application had the seven non-profits receive over the guideline. In the past the county sometimes accepted applications for over the guideline, but it is not a guarantee. 

If all eight organization, including Church of the Harvest, were put on the application at $8,000 each, the funding would be way over the guideline and increase the likelihood of the application getting partially or entirely denied,Thomas said.

Thomas wanted to know where the change came from. She said the change wasn’t discussed with her and also said that her email address had been removed from the workflow in the town’s computer system, so that she didn’t have access to the revised document.

Councilman James Wooten reacts to the protracted argument at the Nov. 27 work session. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Board members discussed adding Church of the Harvest food pantry and reducing each of the proposed grants by $1,000, to $7,000 apiece. 

That could backfire, Thomas told the board. 

“What was explained to us is that if there were duplicative agencies that are providing the same service to the public, that the chances are the county would strike one of those agencies,” Thomas told board members. “One might get it, and the other might not.”

Church of the Harvest located on Raynor Avenue in Riverhead would be the second food pantry on the CBDG application, which already has Open Arms Care Center Food Pantry, which operates out of First Baptist Church on Northville Turnpike, that has been awarded CDBG money in previous years. That may cause the county to remove one of the food pantries — but funding for the rest of the groups would remain at the reduced level of $7,000 each.

By the end of the Town Board work session, board members agreed with the CDA recommendations of seven organizations at $8,000. 

But at Tuesday’s regular town board meeting, members of the public asked the board to reconsider adding Church of the Harvest to the application before ratifying it. The application deadline was actually Dec. 1 and it had already been sent in, as per the board’s agreement last Thursday.  

Mack, the food pantry’s manager pleaded with the board to reconsider. 

“I’m very passionate about what I do. Right now, we have about quadrupled the people that we had from when I started,” Mack said. “We also deliver to about eight to 15 families twice a month. I also open my food pantry twice a month at night for people who can’t make it during the day because all these jobs are cutting hours and people can’t afford to eat anymore. I’m asking to please reconsider our grant,” she said.

Church of the Harvest Pastor Matt Troiano asked the Town Board on Dec. 3 to include the church food pantry in the town’s request for Community Development Block Grant funding. Photo: Julia-Anna Searson

 “We would respectfully ask that you reconsider our request,” Church of the Harvest pastor Mike Troiano said. “There are some differences in the way we run our food pantry. We do deliveries, we do get in to see many shut-ins or people that unable to get to our place.” 

Civic activist Angela DeVito of South Jamesport told the board to “take the chance” and include the second food pantry, suggesting the town explain how the two organizations provide different services.  

The board ultimately decided ratify the application as is, without the addition of Church of the Harvest. It was a 4-1 vote. 

Councilwoman Catherine Kent cast the sole dissenting vote.

“I appreciate the work that the CDA does,” said Kent. “I would’ve like for us as a board to have had more time for discussions so that we could have possibly included Church of the Harvest.” 

Council members in favor of the resolution said the decision was difficult, but noted the application prepared by the CDA is the one most likely to be accepted by the county. 

“I don’t think anybody up here wants to exclude anybody that applied for this but as Angela DeVito mentioned she is willing to take the chance, I’m not,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said. “I don’t want somebody possibly bumped out and the other people being cut the thousand dollars off their budget.”

“I am going to support the recommendations of the CDA,” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said, “but I will be writing a check for Church of the Harvest for all the work that you do.”

Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith noted the difficult timeline for the CDBG application process. 

“I’m glad that the board realizes that there is a very tight timeline with this from when it gets the 30-day public comment period to when the town can do this,” Jens-Smith said. “I think maybe coming up with some sort of criteria beforehand” would help make the process more efficient, she said.

In an interview yesterday, Thomas said she has a meeting scheduled with Mack. They will discuss other avenues to find funding for the Church of the Harvest food pantry, she said.

“I have a couple of ideas but before I decide which one maybe best, I want to sit with her and talk to her about the things she is doing,” Thomas said. “One resource might be better than another.” 

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Julia-Anna Searson
Julia-Anna is a Riverhead native and a recent graduate of Stony Brook University, with a degree in Biology and minor in Anthropology. She currently lives in Cutchogue.