As ‘Meat Ax’ Hangs Over Federal Budget, Mayors and County Officials Defend CDBG

Fort Worth, Texas

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“The president’s proposal is unacceptable,” Columbia, S.C., Mayor Stephen Benjamin said Wednesday as he discussed President Trump’s plan to eliminate Community Development Block Grant funding.

City and county leaders spoke out Wednesday against President Trump’s plan to eliminate a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant program that funnels billions of dollars each year to local governments around the country.

“The president's proposal is unacceptable,” Mayor Stephen Benjamin, of Columbia, South Carolina told reporters during a conference call organized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Benjamin is the organization’s second vice president.

He and others on the call indicated they would push back against Trump’s plan to nix the roughly $3 billion Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, program, a flexible source of federal funding that cities and counties have relied on for about four decades.

"We are going to have a fierce fight to protect this program,” said Tom Cochran, CEO and executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Local governments use CDBG grant funding to support a host of different projects—rehabbing housing, upgrading sewers and improving parks and sidewalks are just a few examples. The money also goes toward programs such as Meals on Wheels, which involves delivering meals to senior citizens, and initiatives to assist the homeless and victims of domestic violence.

Those on Wednesday’s call also voiced opposition to the president’s proposed elimination of funding for the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which provides grants meant to support affordable housing to states and localities.

HOME grants help fund activities like buying and fixing-up housing and offering rental assistance to low-income Americans.

Both CDBG and HOME fall within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Trump proposed cutting both of the grant programs in his so-called “skinny budget,” an initial discretionary spending blueprint for the 2018 fiscal year he sent to Congress in March.

Trump is seeking a $54 billion increase in defense spending and $2.6 billion to begin construction of a wall along the nation’s southern border with Mexico and to pay for other technology and "tactical infrastructure" in the region. His administration looked to offset proposals for spending increases with cuts in other areas.

Roy Charles Brooks is a commissioner in Tarrant County, Texas, which includes Fort Worth. He is also first vice president of the National Association of Counties.

“Because this is a large number it was a pretty good target for elimination, without really investigating how vital it is to communities,” Brooks said of CDBG funding. “In putting together the budget perhaps they should use a scalpel,” he added, “instead of a meat ax.”

The roughly $3 billion that currently goes toward CDBG is equal to about 0.27 percent of the $1.1 trillion in discretionary spending outlined in Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint.

Cochran said the U.S. Conference of Mayors is “feeling very comfortable” with the response it is getting from lawmakers as the group makes a case on Capitol Hill for preserving funding for CDBG. But he added: “we are not taking anything for granted.” Congress will decide in the weeks and months ahead to what extent they will accept or reject Trump’s budget.

The president’s spending proposal says the CDBG program is not well-targeted to the nation’s poorest residents and has not demonstrated results. It calls HOME a “lower priority” program.

Mayor Setti Warren of Newton, Massachusetts, suggested the Trump administration should take a closer look at the CDBG program and the outcomes it has produced.

“This program, we know this, directly has assisted over 1.1 million people with home ownership and improvements,” said Warren, who Chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors Community Development and Housing Committee.

“Thirty-three million people through public improvements and public services have been benefited,” he added.

Bonnie Moore, director of the Department of Community Development in the city of Shreveport, Louisiana and president of the National Community Development Association, pointed out that federal money going to CDBG has declined from a level of about $4.4 billion in 2001.

“Many cities have had to adjust,” she said.

Mayor Brian Wahler, of Piscataway, New Jersey, said cities have weathered “a lot of haircuts” in the recent years with CDBG. “But enough’s enough,” he added. “It can't be eliminated.”

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

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