But supervisors have so far followed through on their stance that the money shouldn't be funneled through the county's Economic Development Agency, where it could be held indefinitely or distributed without public disclosure.
The county's Community Improvement Designation grant program came under fire starting in April when a civil grand jury released a report saying supervisors ignored state law and county policy by using their taxpayer-supported funds to promote themselves or support "pet projects."
Among the grand jury's 15 recommendations was the elimination of the special accounts supervisors held with the EDA.
In late 2012, then-Supervisor Buster, who lost re-election that year, awarded more than $1 million in grants during his final months in office, the investigation found. Much of the money came from his EDA account, which meant Buster didn't have to seek public approval from other board members.
Supervisors, in June of this year, handed out nearly $561,000 in grants during a single meeting and signaled future grant awards would come with more transparency. The funds came from supervisors' Community Improvement Designation programs and the separate, unpublicized accounts with the EDA.
"I think a proposed policy will probably come to the Board sometime in January," Smith said. "It follows the kinds of things that board members had talked about and staff had talked about — taking the process as it exists and trying to add more transparency and establish procedures more countywide."
Since the start of the county's fiscal year in July, slightly more than $1 million in grantshas been distributed through the Community Improvement Designation Program, according to information the county executive office provided The Desert Sun. Grants require a public vote of four of the five supervisors to be approved.
The single largest grant was $50,000 arranged through the office of Supervisor John Benoit for FIND Food Bank. The Indio-based nonprofit works to fight hunger in much of the county and was a major beneficiary of the grant program before it came under scrutiny.
FIND Food Bank CEO Lisa Houston said the agency has continued to use the county money to help pay for staff working to secure more funding.
She said she's already noticed the application and reporting process has become more involved.
"This is not just a quick throw it together and send it off," she said.
Benoit's office has awarded $285,854 in grants since July 1, the most of the five county supervisors. Benoit lives in Bermuda Dunes, and his district covers the entire Coachella Valley and eastern Riverside County.
"We want to make sure that we're able to help the necessary nonprofits now, but whatever is left at the end of the year, we give to transportation and parks and possibly other nonprofits," Greene said.
Michelle DeArmond, Benoit's chief of staff, said the supervisor's office has become more diligent about ensuring reporting changes already made before the grand jury report are followed.
Benoit's office has $317,526 available for CID grants this fiscal year, a smaller amount than in past years, DeArmond said.
"The only change is we've had to curtail the sums of some of our regular recipients, and we've had to say no to virtually all new applications," DeArmond said.
In September, supervisors approved a $12,000 grant request from Benoit for the Colorado River Senior Center. The grant jury, in its report, said the senior center's use of past grants for a meal program used by seasonal residents "does not constitute targeting population in the use of county and federal dollars."
DeArmond described the grand jury's criticism as "misplaced," and said the county asked the center to be more clear in its recent application about the how the money is used.
"We have no concerns about them misusing money or there being a lack of need," she said.
December 26, 2014
The Desert Sun
By Barrett Newkirk
Reach Barrett Newkirk at (760)778-4767, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @barrettnewkirk.