WASHINGTON — Days after an EF-4 tornado tore through Washington four years ago, community leaders set up a foundation to handle funds from around the state and country that were expected to pour in to aid the relief effort.

That group, the Washington Illinois Area Foundation, has raised some $1.6 million in its four years of existence — including a staggering sum of more than $300,000 in net proceeds from Washington Strong T-shirt sales — and has used nearly $1 million of it for relief work through the end of its latest tax reporting year, according to four years of Form 990 documents the 501(c)3 charity filed with the Internal Revenue Service and reviewed by the Journal Star.

Additional money has since also been spent.

The funds went to a variety of purposes, first and foremost to help residents defray some of their repair costs. Money also went to local governments, which had absorbed some costs with taxpayer dollars.

And a healthy balance still remains in the tornado relief account.

The foundation itself is working on appropriate ways, as close to the originally intended use as possible, to spend the remainder of the money. At the same time, officials there are looking at ways to expand the organization's footprint to benefit the community in future years.

People first

The first priority was always the needs of individual residents, the foundation's current president, Matt Moehle, says.

"We wanted to make sure we were exhausting every possible option through residents ... and make sure there was no stone unturned," he said of the work by the all-volunteer, unpaid board. "That was being a steward of the funds that were given to help."

Most of that assistance came through the process residents are familiar with having gone through after reporting their needs to the Tri-County Long-Term Recovery organization.

The various charitable groups involved in recovery efforts met in a roundtable called the Funder's Forum, where the groups received reports from case-workers from Tri-County Long-Term Recovery.

"The real value equation for everyone around the Funder's Forum table was that they knew that when a need came to that group, it had been vetted as it needed to be through the whole process," says Mark Roberts, CEO at The Community Foundation of Central Illinois, which helped set up the long-term recovery group and the Funder's Forum.

The foundation's involvement in the Funder's Forum was "incredibly impactful," Roberts said.

"They started putting quite a bit of money to work," often taking whole groups of cases to fund, and having a particular eye on soil mitigation requests, he said.

The way the funding was set up, the foundation provided funding to a host of other organizations to actually handle the work on the cases: the Washington Ministerial Association, Peoria Friendship House and Crossroads United Methodist Church.

That collaborative aspect was beneficial for the future, Roberts said.

"The massive silver lining of the whole thing was the relationships that were formed that were not very tight or didn't exist at all in this community at that time," he said of the Funder's Forum process.

All told, the foundation provided more than $643,000 that went to individual citizens.

As the individual cases began to wind down, the foundation also provided funding to keep a case-worker on the job longer to process the final applications as the long-term recovery group slowed its operations.

Aiding government

Second on the group's priority list was helping provide reimbursement to local government bodies that bore added costs in the wake of the tornadoes.

Nearly $300,000 of that is accounted for through the end of the foundation's last tax-reporting year, which closed out at the end of April. Most of it came only in the last two years — and some more recently still.

But why did so long elapse before some of those payments were made to governments?

"We were heavy into residents first," Moehle said. "And then when the last call happened and final funds were out for residents and no one was coming out for any more needs, we (found that) we had funds left. Well, government had needs too."

Other than the re-sodding of Harry LaHood Park, which the foundation provided about $79,000 to the Washington Park District to fund in 2014 and 2015, no other funds had gone to governments, most of which had at the time just absorbed any added costs they'd borne because of the disaster.

"It wasn't until starting early in (2016), because we wanted the cases to be done. ... Then I went to the schools personally and said, part of our charge is to reduce government burden. Were there any unreimbursed expenses?" Moehle said.

Out of those discussions came small numbers for some things — transportation costs for students living out of the city, substitute teachers — as well as some larger-ticket items, including damage to the Washington Central District 51 parking lot for which the district was reimbursed for repairs after the fact.

District 51 received more than $174,000 and District 52 received $9,581.

Washington Township and the Fire Department received smaller amounts as well, of $19,751 and $7,989, respectively.

The foundation also approved spending a further $140,000 to cover about two-thirds of the repairs to the parking lot at Washington Community High School this past summer.

That's an amount that was arrived at after consultation with an engineer and contractor to determine how much of the lot's damage came from the heavy equipment that was staged there during recovery efforts, and how much damage came from normal wear and tear.

"We were very serious about our due diligence about saying this was (tornado-related), and we're only paying for that portion," Moehle said, noting the same process was used with District 51's earlier reimbursement.

Staying close to the mission

But with funds still unexpectedly remaining, the foundation began to cast about to see what they could be used for.

"It's impossible to carry out the disaster relief guidelines any further if all the needs have been met," Moehle said.

The group consulted with the Illinois Attorney General's Office, which initially advised them that the use of any remaining funds needed to be for a purpose as close as possible to the originally stated one.

Previously, the foundation had been approached about partnering with Habitat for Humanity on a local construction project, but initially they demurred, with funds still going out for more tornado relief-related efforts.

After further discussions, though, they hatched a workable plan: Construct a home on one of the dozen or so remaining lots where homes had been damaged or destroyed by the twister, but which were still vacant.

"To have funds left over isn't a bad thing, but we want to disburse them and use them for the right purpose," Moehle said.

Further consultations with the attorney general's staff followed, and in August a court order was entered in Tazewell County explicitly giving the foundation the ability to help fund the Habitat home construction, "prioritizing undeveloped lots where the homes previously built thereon were destroyed by the November 17, 2013 tornado."

Not all the remaining money is expected to be spent on the Habitat home, leaving the door open to future projects as well.

And, of course, if there are needs that are unmet, people can still come forward.

For individuals, the process might be slightly different than it was when caseworkers were in place and funding groups like the foundation reviewed requests in large batches with only case numbers — not names or addresses — attached to ensure anonymity.

"If someone were to believe that there's a need out there, our board wants to know about that, and they need to come to us," Moehle said.

Looking to the future

When the foundation was launched, Mayor Gary Manier had announced that its intent was to do good well after the tornado damage was repaired.

"(He said) the vision of the foundation would be not to just meet the disaster needs around here, but to be a community foundation to have future funds that would meet long-term needs in the community well beyond this," Moehle said.

The first of those efforts is to help out schools in the community.

Officials can do so because the foundation was set up in such a way that it can have have multiple, specific accounts to help out with community endeavors — ensuring that, for example, tornado relief money is restricted only to those uses, but that individual schools, or even an account for community benefits at large, remains separate.

The notion of an endowment or foundation had been one that Washington Central District 51 had been kicking around already, superintendent Dale Heidbreder said, and the district had been discussing ideas with the Washington Illinois Area Foundation.

Parents had also approached the district about holding a fundraising gala while the foundation talks were under way, and the two concepts merged, he said, leading to an event at the tail end of this past winter.

"You're going into it as a little bit of an unknown," Heidbreder said. "It was very successful ... I had never experienced an event quite like it before."

It netted about $25,000 for the district's dedicated account with the foundation, and the first wave of grants — for teachers with winning proposals in the areas of science, technology, engineering, art and math — were handed out earlier this school year.

Plans for a second gala in March 2018 are already underway.

Meanwhile, discussions are ongoing with Washington High School District 308 officials about setting up a similar foundation account.

Ultimately, Moehle said, the goal is to continue growing endowments for the community.

"That puts it on the map to really help and benefit for generations to come."

Chris Kaergard covers politics and government. He can be reached at ckaergard@pjstar.com or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.