By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

Free money and a decision on what to do with it caused contentious debates yesterday among the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors and some proponents of the Wellness Center.

The yearly opportunity to tap into the Community Development Block Grant from the state brought with it two special challenges this year:

One, there was a lot of competition for the money ? and two, the city and county wanted to cooperate to get as much grant money as they could for the organizations that wanted it.

Ultimately, the wellness center ? a concept to bring several public health services under one roof ? got the county?s nod for the largest chunk of the grant, with the added promise to let the wellness center builders have all of next year?s grant for a total of $922,000.

?I don?t think we could do anything better for this community than to expand the A Street Clinic,? said Clark Moore of the Del Norte County Health Care District and a key supporter of the center.

But despite the good intentions and possible benefits of creating a public health wellness center, three of the five county supervisors expressed concern about giving it so much of the grant.

Supervisor Martha McClure said it seemed like too many decisions about the money were made behind the scenes and without enough public input.

?It was a decision made outside the purview of the public hearings and I feel the entire process of the CDBG was compromised,? McClure said.

It is up to the county and the city to separately apply for the grant money on behalf of local nonprofit help groups. Both the county and city are eligible for $500,000 a year and apply for it at the same time.

In past years, organizations like the Harrington House battered women?s shelter would apply to both governments and hope one of the grants would come through.

This year, with the large request of the wellness center added to the needs of Harrington House and the Community Assistance Network and others, representatives of the city and county governments decided to pool their efforts and maximize the money.

?What we did was look at the prospective applications and look at how to maximize their chances for getting the grant,? said Supervisor David Finigan.

McClure argued that decisions shouldn?t be made about ?prospective applications,? but on actual applications received after public hearings.

She, along with supervisors Chuck Blackburn and Jack Reese, also expressed concern that the county would promise next year?s CDBG money before next year?s public-hearing process could take place.

Supervisors Finigan and Clyde Eller had met in long negotiations with City Council members Herb Kolodner and Glenn Gary to hash out which government would apply for which nonprofit agency.

They agreed to recommend, to both of their boards, a plan to serve all the groups. In the plan, the city would apply on behalf of Harrington House and CAN, a community food and clothes bank. The county would apply on behalf of the wellness center.

It was the prearrangement that apparently unsettled McClure.

She was also concerned that the county itself will lose needed money next year. Every other year, the county?s Housing Rehabilitation Department applies for the grant to help Del Norte?s needy repair their homes and bring them up-to-code.

Though the housing department doesn?t need the grant this year, it will in 2003.

Because next year?s money was already promised to the wellness center, McClure and the head of the housing department, Leslie Zondervan-Droz said the department will miss out.

?As a staff person, I could not recommend the second year. Housing could not apply next year when we would need it,? Zondervan-Droz said.

Despite the concerns of three of the supervisors and others, no alternative motion was made and Finigan?s original suggestion passed 4-to-1, with McClure dissenting.

?I think this is the first year we have ever fought over CDBG funds. A lot of years, we just let it slip through our hands? because no one showed interest in it, said Dwayne Reichlin, director of the Health Care District Board.