Connecting state and local government leaders

‘This Is Devastating to the Cities. It Is Even More Devastating to Rural Areas’

Kansas City, Missouri

Kansas City, Missouri Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

A funding fight is brewing on Capitol Hill over the White House’s proposed cuts to Community Development Block Grants and the HOME Investment Partnerships Program.

WASHINGTON — Local government leaders and congressional Democrats vowed this week to defend against President Trump’s proposals to wipe out funding for federal grants that help communities cover costs ranging from park upgrades to services for domestic violence victims.

The fiscal year 2018 budget plan the White House released Tuesday proposes eliminating all funding for the Community Development Block Grant program, which was allotted about $3 billion in the current fiscal year. Trump’s plan also seeks to ax nearly $1 billion for a grant program meant to bolster affordable housing, known as HOME Investment Partnerships.

Both programs are overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and provide money for local governments across the U.S. The cuts in this week’s spending proposal were previously outlined in a preliminary budget blueprint Trump sent to Congress in March.

“This is devastating to the cities,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, II, a Missouri Democrat, said referring to the proposed cuts. “It is even more devastating to rural areas.”

When it comes to preserving funding for the programs, he added: “Everybody needs to be in this battle. Not just urbanites.”

He mentioned Orrick, a town in his district with about 800 residents that suffered major storm damage in 2014. Through the state, the town accessed $375,000 of CDBG funding to aid with recovery and cleanup efforts.

Cleaver, who previously spent 12 years on the City Council in Kansas City, Missouri, and served as the city’s mayor in the 1990s, made his remarks Wednesday on Capitol Hill, at an event where elected leaders and others gathered to discuss the CDBG and HOME programs.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters, of California, and Dan Kildee, of Michigan, were also on hand. So were the mayors of Allentown, Pennsylvania; Gary, Indiana; and Marion, Virginia; a supervisor from Orange County, North Carolina; and other state and local officials.

When asked after the event about the odds Congress would go along with the CDBG cuts Trump had proposed, Waters, who is the ranking member on the House Financial Services Committee, noted that the program does enjoy some support among Republicans.

But, she added, that does not mean supporters of CDBG should necessarily rest easy.

“I think we should take everything as a serious threat,” Waters told Route Fifty. “There’s so much uncertainty with this new administration and we don’t know how hard Mulvaney and some of these people will fight and whether or not they really believe in this stuff or whether it’s a scare tactic,” she added, referring to White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

In justifying the CDBG cut, the president’s budget plan says that state and local governments “are better positioned to address local community and economic development needs.”

“Do they really believe that?” said Karen Freeman-Wilson, the mayor of Gary, Indiana.

“Do they really believe that if this money isn’t there, there’s a mechanism for local funding?” she added during an interview following Wednesday’s event. “It doesn’t exist.”

Gary, according to Freeman-Wilson, was awarded about $3 million in CDBG funding this year, and around $500,000 from HOME. Money from the programs, she explained, has gone toward expenses tied to city code enforcement, parks and recreation, demolishing abandoned homes, rehabbing housing, and providing services for the homeless and victims of domestic abuse.

If the grants were to go away, Freeman-Wilson said, the city might be able to turn to philanthropic organizations, or possibly the state, to help backfill the lost funding. But the city’s ability to raise taxes, she noted, is restricted by state-imposed caps.

Gary is located in northwest Indiana, about 30 miles southeast of Chicago.

Once a booming hub for steel-making, the population had fallen to roughly 76,000 last year, from around 151,000 in 1980. About 37 percent of the city’s residents were in poverty during the timeframe spanning 2011 to 2015, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.

Trump’s budget says CDBG “has not demonstrated results” and that “studies have shown that the allocation formula poorly targets funds to the areas of greatest need.”

What would Freeman-Wilson show Trump or members of Congress to make a case for CDBG and HOME? “First I’d show them the devastation that we’ve experienced as a result of the reduction in population and the increase in vacant and abandoned housing,” she said.

About one-quarter of the city’s housing stock is vacant or abandoned, according the mayor.

“Every block in our community there are two or three houses, along with the five or six abandoned ones, where people are keeping their property in a pristine way,” Freeman-Wilson said. The residents in the well-kept homes, she added, want to see demolitions of the vacant houses that are depressing neighborhood property values. “I’d take them to see those folks.”

Beyond that, Freeman-Wilson said, she would highlight projects supported by dollars from the federal grant programs, like a firehouse the city is now building and the Northwest Indiana Veterans Village, a 44-unit apartment building for homeless veterans that opened last year.

Over 350 mayors from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have signed letters sent to congressional leaders in the U.S. House and Senate, voicing support for the Community Development Block Grant Program, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Ed Pawlowski, the mayor of Allentown, Pennsylvania, said during Wednesday’s discussion that calls to slash the CDBG program were not unprecedented, but that the sweeping cuts in Trump’s budget proposal will pose a unique challenge for local government leaders.

“Everything is on the chopping block,” the mayor said. “I don’t even know what I’m lobbying my congressperson and senator for anymore,” he added. “Everything that basically would impact poor neighborhoods, whether it’s urban or rural areas, it gets rid of.”

Figuring out a strategy to explain to lawmakers the consequences if money is swept out of the budget for key programs local governments now depend on, Pawlowski said, would be crucial for those who are looking to preserve this federal funding.

“Foster care is important, housing is important, veterans are important, trains are important, roads are important,” he said. “And it all gets eliminated.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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