Reward at last for community groups who soldiered on through pandemic

Last October in this column, we bemoaned the fact that additional practical and financial supports were not being put in place for community groups and people who volunteer with not-for-profit organisations within their parish in the course of carrying out weekly local improvements work. I was writing at the time of the release of the Tidy Towns results for 2021.  Specifically, I made the suggestion that it might be a good idea for the State to put some sort of a free ‘catch all’ insurance policy in place for every Tidy Towns group in the country so that they could get either cheaper insurance, or free insurance, to cover their voluntary actions – and especially after the last couple of years we have all had to endure with the Covid-19 pandemic – when raising funds at local level has been practically impossible.

  I was writing from first-hand experience as one of those who has worn the yellow fluorescent bib along the roadside, picked up the litter, cut the grass and come into umpteen tidy towns meetings year after year to hear about the cost of paying for a policy to cover the activities of the grass-cutters, the lawnmower, the litter-pickers and the Christmas lights erectors.

  My good friend and colleague James Hudson in Ballyleague Tidy Towns has actually spent years trying to make the case (nationally) for the introduction of a national policy by the Tidy Towns people or the State so that every group can tap into the national insurance cover and avail of either a premium saving or a full discount in return for the fantastic work they do in keeping our local towns and villages looking so well.  Unfortunately, James has been coming into meetings for several years telling us about his fruitless efforts to get the powers that be to respond to his appeals, so I have to acknowledge this week that something has in fact been done now about this situation. There’s an ideal opportunity coming up very soon for every Tidy Towns group in County Roscommon and every other community group in the country to try and have the cost of that insurance – or at least some part of it – covered by a State grant this year.

  The Department of community and rural affairs says it will now provide over a quarter of a million euro to County Roscommon alone to help to provide practical support to smaller community groups and facilities at a grassroots level. A new scheme – to be known as the ‘Community Activities Fund’ – has been created and will apparently support groups, particularly in disadvantaged areas, with running costs such as utility or insurance bills, as well as with improvements to their facilities. Tidy Towns groups, hall committees and others will also be able to use the funding to carry out necessary repairs and to purchase equipment such as tables and chairs, tools and signage, laptops and printers, lawnmowers, canopies and training equipment in a move that I think has to be warmly welcomed.

  The full list of costs that can be helped with is fairly extensive and I am sure that there are lots of groups reading this who could well do with some financial assistance covering bills for development or renovation of community centres, community amenities, development of youth clubs or facilities, development of sports or recreation facilities, improvements to town parks and common areas and spaces, CCTV equipment, public realm improvements, street-scaping, development of play and recreation spaces, purchase of equipment, adaptations or equipment needed as a result of Covid-19, maintenance of premises, utility bills (electricity costs, refuse charges, heating charges) and all other operating costs (e.g. existing rental/lease costs, insurance bills). Website maintenance, cleaning and audit and accountancy fees are also eligible and I am pretty sure the full list covers almost all of the bills our hard-working Tidy Towns groups get into their letter box every year – so here’s hoping they will all get a fair share of the cost back now.

  Nine million euro has been made available for the groups nationwide and it seems to me that every community group in Roscommon is now entitled to seek a decent share from the national pie in return for the outstanding work they all did during the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the country was shut down on several occasions, they plodded on with local food collections and deliveries from their community organisations, clubs, men’s and women’s sheds, youth centres and parish halls. This is very much ‘PAYBACK TIME’ as far as the State is concerned and I would encourage all interested groups to get in touch with Roscommon County Council and their Local Community Development Committee (LCDC) that administers the programme to make their application.

  The Department has recommended that LCDCs ring-fence some funding to provide small grants of €1,000 or less, thus ensuring it goes around as much as possible – at least 60,000 euro of the Roscommon allocation is destined to go to 60 local groups. The programme can also fund or partially fund larger-scale projects to address disadvantage. This will also be important where new projects have stretched voluntary groups.

  For the record, the following expenditure is not eligible for funding under this new community activities fund: employment costs, legal fees, project management fees, purchase of lands or buildings, feasibility studies, private or commercial operations, costs which are being paid for by another funder or department, and what the Department describes loosely as any project “which is not in keeping with the ethos of the Programme”.

  In order to allow flexibility, the Department did not set a national closing date, but allowed each LCDC to set its own – to best suit its area – and here in Roscommon that closing date is Friday February 11th. The council will accept applications on its own website portal, details of which can be found at the bottom of this column, and they have also made public the criteria that is going to apply for the distribution of the funds. There is a fair degree of homework to be done by the groups involved but it seems to me that even the smallest committee with basic running costs could avail of support here if they get their paperwork sorted.

  For instance – if your Tidy Towns group had to repay their annual insurance premium in the period 1st July 2021 to 30th June 2022, that cost is eligible for consideration of a grant payment. I would suggest you dig out that policy document, the invoice for the renewal, and get your bank statement out to prove you paid it. You may well need to show the receipt for payment at a later date and the bank statement to help confirm your group actually renewed it, but apart from that it’s about 20 minutes’ work on the website portal and your claim for at least 1000 euro should be ready to go in.

  As most community volunteers already know, there is no such thing as ‘soft money’ in any grant process of this nature and all applications will be evaluated by the LCDC to ensure eligibility and that they are targeted at addressing disadvantage as identified in the local county plan. Projects will be judged having regard to how they supported local groups and clubs, which have continued to serve their community during Covid-19,  invested to increase or extend the use of their facility, for example, to voluntary and community groups, or actually reduced the annual running cost of a facility.

  Two big conditions jumped out to me when I read the small print about the community activity grant applications process. The Department says that previous funding will be taken into account when assessing applications and the amount of funding received from other sources will be considered, so if you’re just after buying a new community bus to try and help people living alone with another grant you’re immediately at a disadvantage, which is a pity. The other key sentence in the all the ‘bumpf’ that comes with the scheme is that the Department says this is a ‘once-off payment’.

  In the context of the national pandemic that is very much with us for another year, I am not sure if all the community groups involved will be too happy with that latter condition. I truly hope I am wrong, but this time next year they may well have to revisit it.