An email error cost the Town of Falmouth up to $400,000 in funding through the Community Development Block Grant program authorized by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
“In a nutshell, the board will recall that there is evidence the application was transmitted via email in a timely fashion, but the state funding agency, [the US Department of Housing and Community Development] indicated they had no record of receiving it,” Town Manager Julian M. Suso said at the Falmouth Select Board meeting on Monday, July 27.
The board authorized the grant application at its June 1 meeting. Town Planner Thomas Bott submitted the grant application to the agency on June 12. The email was copied to Mr. Suso and Michael Shoemaker, community development planner for the Town of Falmouth. Mr. Suso confirmed he received the CC’d email.
“The likelihood was very great it went out of our town system properly but was, for reasons unknown, rejected by or lost by the state system,” Mr. Suso said.
Comparing email to US Postal Service mail, Director of Information Technology Gregory Banwarth said the town has enough data to show the mail was placed into the outbox.
“We have every reason to believe it successfully left our institution, but just like regular mail, once you hand it off to the postman, it can get lost at a variety of junctures,” Mr. Banwarth said. “Either it can get lost due to a couple of challenges on the general internet, but most probably one of the many systems that MassDOT.gov has filtered or blocked it at some level.”
Select board member Samuel H. Patterson asked if town staff have a way to confirm email recipients received emails sent from the town.
“For snail mail, you can get a certified-mail return-receipt request. It is some kind of feedback that somebody signed off that they accepted it. Is there a system we can put in place because this is just too much money lost at a time when we really need it?” he said.
Mr. Banwarth said there “is no good system.” The only system that would track an email from sender to recipient would require both parties to sign into a secure site to verify the read receipt.
“It gets a little bit confusing, as there are a lot of programs out there, like Microsoft Outlook, that say ‘Do you want the recipient to flag they received this email?’ but that is not a standard email protocol. Most services block that,” he said.
Noting the town can show it met the application deadline, chairwoman Megan E. English Braga asked if there is any recourse.
“Can we advocate further on this particular issue so that we can try to have some access to these funds?” Ms. English Braga said.
Mr. Suso said he has contacted the town’s elected officials to inquire further into the matter.
“The unfortunate response we got back from the bureaucracy, which requested an electronic submission, was, ‘Gee, we can’t find it in our system, and unfortunately there is no money left,’” he said.
Mr. Bott said the Department of Housing and Community Development now has the town’s grant application, making Falmouth eligible for a future round of funding.
“They do have another allocation coming, they say,” he said. “They do not have it in hand at this time. They are waiting for [the agency], so they don’t know exactly when that will be. They will review the application, score it and hold the application until then. That is saying, ‘We’re not going to give you money, we’re going to score it with all the other applications we might get, if we get more money at some point.’”
Ms. English Braga said town staff should document the application process, memorializing what was said to Mr. Bott, and provide that information to its elected representatives.
“I agree with Sam. At this point in time, any funds left on the table, they’re just so necessary as we go forward,” she said.
Mr. Patterson said he would like to see a protocol put in place to follow up on emails to ensure grant applications are received.
“This could happen again, and it could be an even larger price tag. I would like to see some kind of a protocol that we adopt as a staff that has a follow-up check process,” he said.
Ms. English Braga agreed emails should be followed up on, particularly for large grant applications.
“With everyone and their sister applying for all of this, the numbers are probably overwhelming some of these [systems],” she said. “We saw it happen early on, with the [Small Business Administration], where 20 million people were applying in one day.”
Through the Community Development Block Grants program, there was $19.65 million in funding available for Massachusetts communities to use as small business loans, rental assistance and support for food banks. Falmouth applied for $400,000, the maximum amount allowed.