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Eastern Idaho fire safety nonprofit says it hasn’t been paid through state grants in months 

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Eastern Idaho fire safety nonprofit says it hasn’t been paid through state grants in months 

Nov 16, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Clark Corbin
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Eastern Idaho fire safety nonprofit says it hasn’t been paid through state grants in months 
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The eastern Idaho town of Island Park is located in Fremont County, a short drive from Yellowstone National Park. (Courtesy of City of Island Park)

An Eastern Idaho nonprofit organization that helps residents of Island Park protect their homes from fire says the state is months behind making payments for work the organization completed and invoiced through state grants. 

Loy Schroeder, treasurer of the Island Park Sustainable Fire Community, said that because the state is months behind on its payments, the organization had to seek out lines of credit totaling $120,000 to sustain itself. As a result, Schroeder said the sustainable fire community organization incurred interest charges totaling $800 a month that the grant won’t cover. 

“There is nothing to pull from because we are a nonprofit,” Schroeder said in a telephone interview. “The result of this was in September, when we normally start our slash program (to remove dead tree branches and shrubs), we were out of money.”

Schroeder said part of the delays have been attributed to the state transitioning to the Luma business system that all state agencies and employees are now tied into. Luma is designed to increase security and transparency, but it has been subject to process and data entry errors since launching July 1. 

Chief Deputy Idaho State Controller Joshua Whitworth said Luma is working and processes state payments every day, and several factors contributed to the delayed payments. Those factors included turnover in positions that work with grants and finances at the Idaho Department of Lands where one of the grants originated, the need to verify documentation related to payments and difficulties adjusting to the new reporting and data processes used under the new Luma system, Whitworth said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“The reason why it is taking longer is because all of those factors are tied together,” Whitworth said. 

Island Park nonprofit helps residents evaluate wildfire risks to their properties

A registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, Island Park Sustainable Fire Community provides free home evaluations where an official evaluates the trees and vegetation, buildings and roads for fire risk and then issues a series of recommendations to reduce the risk of fire and create a defensible space. The Island Park Sustainable Fire Community also sponsors slash disposal programs each summer where contractors collect dead tree branches, treetops and brush that would serve as fuels for fire.

Located a short drive from Yellowstone National Park, many home and cabin sites in Island Park border or are located near national forests or a state park land and can face an elevated fire risk, Schroeder said. 

The Island Park Sustainable Fire Community is designed to give residents knowledge and tools to reduce that risk.

“We’re like a conduit between the state and private property owners to assist them in preparing their homes to more fire safe,” Schroeder said. 

“The sustainable fire work they are doing is designed to minimize the cost of fire suppression to the state,” Schroeder added. “When we’re ‘fire safe,’ we’re less apt to be affected heavily by a wildfire than someone who has trees three feet away from each other.” 

Speaker of the Idaho House says new $120 million business system Luma doesn’t work

The organization formed in 2012, has five paid staffers and relies on a series of subdivision ambassador volunteers to connect the Island Park Sustainable Fire Community to the town’s home and cabin owners, Schroeder said. 

Schroeder said the delayed state payments were supposed to come through grants from the Idaho Department of Lands and the Idaho Office of Emergency Management.

Shroeder said the state is four months behind in payments. 

After what she described as months of frustration, Schroeder sent a Nov. 8 email to Gov. Brad Little’s office, three state legislators who represent Island Park, the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office, the Idaho State Board of Education, Attorney General Raúl Labrador, the Post Register newspaper and the Idaho Capital Sun. Schroeder wrote that Island Park Sustainable Fire Community has not been paid for months and the organization will not be able to continue working if it is not paid in connection with the next invoice it submits.

Schroeder said two legislators, Rep. Rod Furniss, R-Rigby, and Sen. Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, immediately got back to her after she sent her email and told her they would investigate the matter.

Then, on Tuesday, Schroeder told the Sun that the Island Park Sustainable Fire Community received a pending notice that the first delayed grant payment would be issued the following day, with another cued up a week later.   

Idaho fire nonprofit said transition to new state business systems has contributed to delays

When the Island Park Sustainable Fire Community organization asked about the delayed payments, Schroeder said they’ve been told by state employees that the Idaho Department of Lands is understaffed and the transition to the new statewide business system Luma has affected payment processing. 

Launched July 1, Luma centralizes and standardizes all of the state’s business, payroll, budget, human resources, procurement and financial management systems in one place, state officials have told the Sun. All state agencies and all state employees are tied to Luma, and Whitworth, Idaho’s chief deputy state controller, recently described the transition to Luma as the largest reengineering of business systems in state history.

Luma replaces a patchwork quilt of old state legacy business, accounting, payroll and human resources systems that dated to 1987 and 1988 that were vulnerable to security threats and natural disasters and had outlived their useful lifetime, Whitworth has previously said. Luma is designed to increase security, standardize business systems across all state agencies and offer increased transparency through better and more centralized tracking of state expenses and contracts.

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Idaho Department of Lands public information officer Sharla Arledge said it now takes the department about four weeks to process payments under the new business system. Previously, it took two weeks to process payments using the old system under ideal conditions, she said.

As our experience with the new process increases and our proficiency improves, this timeframe may be reduced,” Arledge wrote in a written statement to the Sun on Wednesday.

Arledge also echoed Whitworth’s statement that the Idaho Department of Lands has had to fill several vacancies in grant management and fiscal areas, which have added to the processing delays. 

In September, the Sun reported on problems transitioning to the Luma system, including the state being unable for three months to produce the official comparative revenue reports that legislators and the public use to track monthly revenue collections against budget projections and historic revenue collections.  

Whitworth has told the Idaho Capital Sun, members of the Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and the Legislative Council that Luma does work and is processing data. However, Whitworth said the state training for Luma lagged behind and employees and agencies have made a series of data entry and process errors and experienced difficulty using and navigating the new Luma system.

Earlier this month, a report to the Legislative Council disclosed that fewer than 50% of the state’s employees had completed basic Luma training before the system launched.

Whitworth said the Idaho State Controller’s Office is revamping how it supports state agencies struggling with Luma, with the goal of streamlining the process.

“It has got to get a little bit better,” Whitworth told the Sun. “From education to support, we need to help the agencies through this process.”

Schroeder said she is sympathetic to state agencies that are understaffed and employees who are navigating big changes to business systems. But she said the Island Park Sustainable Fire Community performed its work in good faith and deserves to be paid on time. 

“Our land owners are very willing and ready for more treatments,” Schroeder wrote in the Nov. 8 email to state officials. “Please, help us maintain their enthusiasm and support by addressing the grant payments and interest cost issues.”

We want to hear from you

Are you a state employee, contractor or vendor who has experience with the state’s Luma business system? We would like to hear from you about your experience. You can reach us at [email protected] or email reporter Clark Corbin at [email protected].