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State Spinal Cord Injury Research Board has not awarded grants in timely manner, comptroller says in audit

| Source: lohud.com

ALBANY – The state Spinal Cord Injury Research Board has not awarded grants in a timely manner, prompting the Legislature to take back $13.5 million one year and withhold funds in others, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in an audit released yesterday.

But the state Health Department, which oversees the board and the Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund, said no money has been lost because the agency still has the authority to spend the funds.

The Spinal Cord Injury Research Board was created in 1998 and the grants it gives out are funded by a surcharge on drivers who receive traffic tickets. The first grants were not given out until 2001. All told, it took between six months and 487 days after requests for applications were issued to give out the money, the audit found. The funds go to scientists, physicians and other experts researching a cure for spinal-cord injury.

As of May 31, 2007, $63.9 million was deposited into the trust fund. The board gave out $40.9 million of that, but $13.5 million was transferred to the state’s General Fund for other uses, the audit said. Moreover, the state declined to appropriate $8.5 million to the fund in 2006-07, and $8.5 million in 2007-08, the report said.

“According to the Public Health Law, the board is responsible for ensuring that funds are used for spinal cord-injury research and not diverted for any other use,” DiNapoli’s report said. “We found that the department has not awarded all of the funds, resulting in unused funds being taken back by the state Legislature.”

The Health Department said that even though the money has not all been spent, it still has the authority to get the money if necessary.

“Money has not been lost,” said Claire Pospisil, a spokeswoman for the Health Department.

In its written response to the audit, the Health Department said there was an accumulation of cash in the trust fund the first few years. Funds that are not spent are reappropriated to the next year, “regardless of the level of actual cash deposited.” If the amount of cash in the trust fund was less than what was needed, the agency “would consider seeking additional appropriation authority to ensure that authorized research activities are appropriately supported,” the department said.

The department said that the program originally had an “inadequate level of experienced staffing.” That was rectified when a new director was hired in October 2006, and the agency has since hired additional staff to support the office.

Two of the vacancies on the Spinal Cord Injury Research Board were filled during 2007, leaving only two open spots on the 13-member panel. The agency previously had trouble with low attendance by board members and had some difficulty getting enough members for a quorum to vote, the Health Department said.

Other criticisms in the audit include:

– The state did not provide adequate oversight to ensure that grant objectives were being accomplished. Of the 58 grant contracts that were active or closed as of Aug. 21, 2007, 56 percent of progress reports from grantees had not been submitted, 40 percent of final reports were not in, and none of the statistical-qualitative reports or seminar documentation required to demonstrate grant performance had been submitted.

– Trust Fund officials had never visited a grantee or reviewed support documentation to verify that expenditures were supported.

“If effective oversight was in place, these instances of noncompliance with contract terms would have been detected and corrected,” DiNapoli said in the audit.

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