The money is part of a larger $7.1 million settlement the county received in July 2015 as the result of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill that began with an offshore rig explosion on April 20, 2010.
As part of their process for disbursing the one-time revenue source, Pinellas County commissioners sought ideas from the public along with applications and unanimously approved a list of projects on December 13, 2016. (See the complete list at pinellascounty.org/BPupdates/pdf/BCC_approved.pdf.)
One item on the list is labeled, “Historic Lincoln Cemetery Memorial Rehab” for the amount of $90,000.
The matter of distributing these specific grant monies has been delayed based on two local non-profit organizations – one in Gulfport and one in St. Petersburg – that have been in dispute until recently over cemetery land ownership due to competing legal documents.
Assurance of cemetery ownership was needed by the commission before final awarding of the grant, said Commissioner Charlie Justice, the representative for District 3 that includes Gulfport. Justice was also the chairperson of the commission when the workflow for seeking BP grant proposals and approving projects was adopted.
The Lincoln Cemetery grant applicant is Cross & Anvil Human Services, a local non-profit associated with the Greater Mt. Zion AME Church, 1045 16th St. S., St. Petersburg.
At the time of their application, the church group did not have a clear land title for the cemetery located at 600 58th St. S., Gulfport. Considered an historical treasure, the nine-acre cemetery was established in 1926 and contains the graves of approximately 6,714 African Americans, 247 are recorded as military veterans.
Independently of the church and in December 2015, a Gulfport resident named Vanessa Gray began to maintain the cemetery with the help of local volunteers and eventually a team from the Sarasota school district that joined in with a 10-year commitment. Gray routinely organizes heavy cleanup days to mow grass, clear overgrown brush, maintain trees, dispose of litter and repair gravesites.
To facilitate volunteer recruitment and retention efforts in a formal way, Gray decided to create the non-profit Lincoln Cemetery Society on June 20, 2016.
Following this effort, Gray contacted a man who by some legal interpretations owned the deed to the cemetery property. Richard S. Alford of St. Petersburg transferred ownership to Gray’s non-profit on February 8, 2017. By February 14, 2017, the deed was recorded with the Pinellas County Clerk of the Court.
When Gray became aware of the church group’s efforts relating to the cemetery, their application for the county’s BP grant money and their acquisition of a competing land ownership document, strained communications developed between the two over attempts to resolve the deeds. Each group retained a lawyer.
On Tuesday, May 23, 2017, Dr. Basha P. Jordan, Jr., the grandson of Elder Jordan who is the namesake for St. Petersburg’s historic Jordan Park, was officially named as one of the advisors to the Lincoln Cemetery Society. His great grandfather is buried at the cemetery.
After Jordan led efforts “calling on the community to come together and support the efforts of Gray and the non-profit society she established to care for the property,” he had a subsequent conversation with Rev. Clarence Williams who represents the Cross & Anvil Human Services non-profit and the associated church.
Jordan was told by Williams that the church-related non-profit was no longer interested in pursuing the Lincoln Cemetery project, said Gray.
Jordan confirmed the result of his earlier conversation with Williams on Monday, March 26, 2018 in a text message to Gray.
During the time that land ownership of the cemetery was in the process of being resolved, the county kept their BP grant monies in reserve, said Justice.
Now, moving forward, the commissioners need assurances about the cemetery’s legal issue, the fiscal capacity of Lincoln Cemetery Society to do a project, the details of their plan and their credibility as a non-profit, said Welch.
“I speak with Williams frequently and we’ve talked in person” about the Cross & Anvil Human Services non-profit doing a new and different project with BP grant money, said Welch.
“The church that applied has another proposed use for the funds so the commission will have to talk about that,” said Welch. “There’s no roadmap for this kind of an event. I am committed to the original group that applied. I’m waiting for them to come forward and suggest their alternative route for the funds.”
As of Tuesday, March 27, 2018 at 10 a.m., the county staff had received no official documentation about an application change from Williams, said Andrew Pupke of the county’s Department of Real Estate Management.
Williams called Pupke about two months ago about the process of changing the purpose of their grant application.
“At the time, I indicated that they couldn’t change the application because the board had decided the funds were allocated for Lincoln Cemetery,” said Pupke. “The board will need to approve any change.”
Justice believes that the county’s BP grants “are for specific projects and not groups. With ownership documentation, we will be able to help Gray in her process of getting the funds. My hope was and is that we can find a way to get Lincoln Cemetery some funds to get some work done.”
The Matter of Finances
Until May 2016, the city of Gulfport performed basic maintenance on the property like mowing and special debris collection. During this time, it assessed code enforcement liens against the property and ultimately to the land’s future owner.
As of Monday, March 26, the Lincoln Cemetery Society owes the city $34,542.98 as the result of these unpaid code enforcement fines that are continuing to accrue interest, said City Manager Jim O’Reilly.
The society hopes that part or all of the lien will be forgiven or that future grant money they may receive can be used to pay the debt, said Gray.
GuideStar, a national non-profit group incorporated in 1996, gathers and disseminates information about IRS-registered non-profit organizations. As of March 26, 2018, it does not list a mission statement or financial assets for either the Cross & Anvil Human Services or the Lincoln Cemetery Society groups.
Both groups do maintain websites and a social media presence regarding the work they do in the community.
County-level grant monies are disbursed using a reimbursement system, said Justice. He explained the county does not write a lump sum check but requires receipts for accounting purposes in order to track how the money is spent.
The Next Steps
At the next regular meeting of the county commission on Tuesday, April 10, 2018 or before, Gray plans to submit formal documentation regarding her non-profit’s land ownership of the cemetery and the group’s plans for using any BP grant monies it receives.
Representatives from both non-profit groups will have the opportunity to update their information and talk about their plans with commissioners before a decision is made by majority vote, said Welch.
“There is room to significantly fund both projects fairly and equitably,” said Welch.
On May 23, 2017, Dr. Basha P. Jordan, Jr., the grandson of Elder Jordan who is the namesake for St. Petersburg’s historic Jordan Park, was officially named as one of the advisors to the Lincoln Cemetery Society. His great grandfather is buried at the cemetery.