Battle Creek

B.C. City Commissioners explain $8 million ARPA funding decision after criticism on Facebook live

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

At the age of 21, Jenasia Morris was the youngest candidate seeking a seat on the Battle Creek City Commission during the 2020 election.

She was elected to represent the city’s Ward 2 and says she has stayed true to her commitment to represent her constituents and all residents of Battle Creek through a lens that focuses on equity and fairness.

But, one of the community’s prominent African American religious leaders recently called out her age and what he called her “lack of experience” during a March 6 Facebook event. He, along with the host of the Facebook event, also questioned the fairness and transparency of the process used by city commissioners to allocate about $8 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) to fund projects submitted by organizations in the community.

Of the 31 projects submitted by different community groups to commissioners for review, 13 organizations received the full amount that they asked for to fund their projects. Seven received partial funding.

The full list of ARPA funding recipients are: 
  • Burma Center — $347,563
  • Community Action — $150,000
  • Voces — $1,047,070
  • SHARE Center — $364,000
  • United Way — $500,000
  • Starr Commonwealth — $170,000
  • Charitable Union— $150,000
  • Catalyzing Community Giving — $847,071
  • R.I.S.E. — $547,071
  • Washington Heights United Methodist Church — $360,000
  • Haven of Rest Ministries — $500,000
  • Kingdom Builders Worldwide — $631,000
  • Blvcksheep — $347,071
  • Neighborhoods Inc of Battle Creek — $500,000
  • New Level Sports Ministries — $1,247,070
  • What A Do Theatre — $50,000
  • South Michigan Food Bank — $152,088
  • Southwest Michigan Community Impact-Pantry — $5,000
  • The Music Center — $48,000
  • Arc of Calhoun County — $30,000
“It was a very fair and unbiased process,” Morris says. “We made it a priority to be transparent in what we were doing and that’s why we used the rubric. It was very thorough. Everyone had the same opportunity to put in a proposal, which was scored on the same rubric.”

A rubric is a guide listing specific criteria for grading or scoring academic papers, projects, or tests.

City Manager Rebecca Fleury says the rubric process was created at the direction of city commissioners who wanted the best reviewing tool possible. She says city staff incorporated parts of a rubric process used in Kalamazoo and other tools that they had familiarity with to create the local rubric.
 
Fleury says, “We shared the rubric with the applying organizations once our team developed it, so they would know what the commission would be considering.”

Pastor Christopher McCoy and Bishop Tino Smith at "The Kitchen Table," a Facebook live show that appears online weekly, featuring different topics and community leaders.“It’s not a process that we’re used to and it was new for all of us,” Fleury says. “There is no perfect process and many times when the city tries something new people are going to have positive or negative opinions.”
Janaisa Morris says everyone had the same opportunity to put in a proposal that was scored on the same rubric.
While Morris says she received hundreds of comments from residents who supported her decisions in the process used to distribute the ARPA funds, Bishop Tino Smith, the leader of Kingdom Builders Worldwide, and Pastor Christopher McCoy, Executive Director of New Level Sports Ministries, discussed their concerns about the process and its treatment of organizations that serve the city’s African American community during a segment of “The Kitchen Table” that aired on Facebook. Smith began hosting the weekly show about three years ago. It features community leaders who discuss a broad range of issues.

Kingdom Builders received $631,000 in ARPA funds, the full amount requested. However, Smith questioned the allocations saying in an interview following “The Kitchen Table” presentation that he not only represents the Black community, but also counts members of the Burmese, Latinx, and White communities among those who use services provided at Kingdom Builders. That representation comes with a responsibility to speak up when he thinks these communities have not been dealt with fairly and honestly, he says.

“I was considered. I got lucky,” Smith says. “But what about my brothers and sisters who didn’t even get a chance?”

McCoy also was interviewed for this story following his appearance on “The Kitchen Table.”  He later asked that his comments be removed.

Not the highest-ranked

As part of the allocation process, projects submitted were also ranked by commissioners based on a priority-based funding method used in city budgeting. Smith and McCoy both questioned during the show why their projects did not end up within the top five. They instead ranked as the bottom two.

Morris says she thinks some of their criticism comes from misunderstanding the use of the word “priority.”

“They felt like their projects were lower priorities for us. We as commissioners have a responsibility to follow the overall priorities we established in our annual priority-based budget process,” Morris says.  “It wasn’t like we as individual commissioners were saying ‘this project is a priority for me personally.’”

Vice Mayor Kaytee Faris says, "We used a process that was formed specifically to set aside personal bias or any factors outside of what was presented to us."Vice Mayor Kaytee Faris says the city budget annually goes through a priority-based budgeting project that involves commissioners establishing priorities for the city and making decisions about how those priorities will be funded. She says the  ARPA funding rubric,  presented the facts of each application to commissioners so the process could remain unbiased. They then decided how those projects matched the goals for the city and federal guidelines for ARPA monies. Rankings were determined in this manner.  

The rankings reflected the decision of the commission as a whole, but the rankings made individually by each commissioner also are publicly available and can be obtained through a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request, Fleury says.

“I’m not taking it personally because I know I did take a lot of time to go through each of the 31 projects submitted,” Faris says, of the criticism. “At the end of the day, I feel confident in how I scored the projects. Anytime the commission makes decisions there will be people who fall on either side. There are always going to be critics regardless of how we came about making a decision. We used a process that was formed specifically to set aside personal bias or any factors outside of what was presented to us.”

Fleury says the way commissioners used the rubric to individually score projects comes with their individual experiences.

“They each approached it with a different perspective and they each have their own lens to use as they see fit,” she says. “We have some commissioners who are used to reviewing grant proposals and some who have no experience.”

Smith has questions. “But when our commissioners don’t even consider us in their ranking, we want to know what happened to you when you didn’t vote for Kingdom Builders. How could we not be in the top five? Chris and I came together because it just didn’t make sense.”

City Commissioner Boonikka Herring says she thinks Smith and McCoy take exception with the fact the three Black commissioners  —  herself, Morris, and Carla Reynolds — didn't rank their projects higher.

“They got the most money. They were in the top three of monies distributed,” Herring says of projects submitted by Smith and McCoy. “They were upset that their projects were not placed number one and number two in the rankings and they were upset that we as Black commissioners didn’t vote their projects higher.”

Boonika Herring says she thinks Bishop Smith and Pastor McCoy take exception with the fact the three Black commissioners didn't rank their projects higher.Morris agrees with Herring and says, “They felt they should have been number one and number two. That Black commissioners didn’t have their projects at the top had nothing to do with race. I feel it’s my job to score fairly and represent my community fairly. People of my skin color don’t get to go before anyone else just because their skin color is the same as mine, fair is fair.”

What McCoy saw as a lack of support prompted him to say during the show that Morris’s lack of experience and outside forces influenced her to rank their projects as she did.

During the “Kitchen Table” gathering, McCoy said it’s his job and the job of other Black males to “cover” Black women in leadership positions in Battle Creek and make them look good and “when they get out of order, put them back in order.” Among the Black female leaders he cited were La June Montgomery Tabron, President and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; Kyra Wallace, President and CEO of the Southwestern Michigan Urban League; Kimberly Carter, Superintendent of the Battle Creek Public Schools; and Adrien Bennings, President of Kellogg Community College.

Commissioner Herring says McCoy’s statement was an “embarrassing display of misogyny, xenophobia, and racism. If you disrespect one of us, you disrespect us all.”

She says Smith and McCoy “never reached out to us or spoke with us with their concerns about the allocation process. They took to social media and disrespected us and talked negatively about us. It’s very embarrassing as a Black woman and member of the Battle Creek community. It’s just very disrespectful.”

Last week Herring posted the following on her Facebook page: "Last Sunday, my intelligence, character and 'blackness' was attacked by 2 men, Pastor McCoy and Bishop Smith, old enough to know better. A verbal attack on other community leaders and organizations was also made. I want to lift up the strength of those who lead with integrity and selflessness every day. I want to lift up the passion it takes for leaders to wake up and get to work every morning knowing that resources are low. I want to lift up the leaders who don’t tear down others in order to boost their own egos. I want to lift up the women in this world who do the same work as men for less pay and never get credit for their hard work. I want to lift up the men who protect and cover 'all' women, not just the ones who agree with them. I also want to lift up this Battle Creek community for reaching out and showing your love and support to those people who were degraded in that video. Over 200 people have reached out and offered their love, support, and appreciation in this last week and as your Ward 3 Commissioner I try to make sure that I represent the needs of our community and I realize that everyone may not like my decisions. Just know that I love Battle Creek and I will continue serving this community with integrity, class and positive energy. Have an amazing day and remember to treat people how you wish to be treated." The post concludes with three hearts.  

Morris calls the comments made by McCoy about her and other Black female commissioners “disrespectful and ignorant.” 

Herring says once those conversations moved from kitchen tables and private discussions to a social media format and questioned the experience and decisions made by Black female commissioners, it was no longer a “family conversation” in a kitchen table setting.

“In the Black community what happens in the family stays in the family, but the second you put it on social media, it’s no longer family business. There should have been a phone call made saying ‘we want to know why you voted the way you did.’”

Faris, Herring, and Morris say they never received such phone calls.

“They wanted us to support only Black organizations,” Herring says,  “and that’s very sad and promoting racism which is very wrong.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.