On The Trail: Aldermen Still Flex Muscle In Block Grant Funding

Dec 26, 2013

Credit Richie Diesterheft | Flickr

When a Board of Aldermen committee made changes to St. Louis' community development block grant recommendations, it showed the city's legislative branch asserting itself against a power shift to the executive.

But not everybody was happy -- including the agency that gave the city the funds in the first place.

“We are hoping in the future those things do not happen again,” James Heard, HUD’s regional field director, said last week. “We have expressed to the city, the HUDZ Committee and the aldermanic board that we were not happy with that process because we are still trying to make sure that the entire process is transparent."

While the Board of Aldermen ended up approving the vast majority of the Community Development Administration's block grant recommendations, members of the board’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee flexed its political muscle and ended up shifting several hundred thousand dollars around. Those changes were sustained on floor of the Board of Aldermen, where a majority of aldermen prevented any other alterations from occurring. 

Because of the way the block grants were structured, committee members had to take away funding from certain programs if they wanted to add funding to others. While some aldermen said such moves were needed to make sure certain programs kept funding, others were disappointed.

“It was rougher than I anticipated and possibly even more politically charged than in the past,” said Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward. “And I think some of that is attributable to the fact that it is a new process and sometimes it takes a while to smooth things out. The fact that you have a panel of people making decisions but aldermen ultimately having to approve the budget creates a unique set of issues.” 

 

Some aldermen said that the amendment detracted from the purpose of the new process: taking political decisions out of the funding process.

“You could change the money in committee, which gives the slight to HUD saying that ‘this shouldn’t be done politically,’” said Alderwoman Dionne Flowers, D-2nd Ward, who was immensely critical of CDA during this year's block grant process. “I think politics plays into the end result as to who gets the funding or not.”

Alderman Tom Villa, D-11th Ward, said, "We were led to believe that the point system was in effect going to be sacrosanct. Well, as it has developed and as it has evolved, that turned out to be a joke because some of the individual aldermen weren’t happy with the way the money was being divided.”

For her part, Alderwoman Marlene Davis, D-19th Ward, said the changes amounted to a small percentage of the $16.8 million worth of recommendations. Others -- such as Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward -- said during debate that committee members wanted to make sure they were funding programs important to their constituents, such as community education programs.

“If you look at the overall budget, we didn’t even really change 2 percent of the overall budget. Does it affect (the program) dramatically? No,” said Davis, who voted for the amendment in the HUDZ Committee. “Did it calm down some folks and let us be able to work in some kind of harmony for the next year? Yes. So sometimes those things are important.”

Alderman Fred Wessels, D-13th Ward, said earlier this year  he wasn’t happy with the amendment. He was also the only person who voted against it in the HUDZ Committee. But he also said that the changes were relatively small in the grand scheme of things.

“Did some politics get involved in committee? Yeah. But out of that budget, there was only $300,000 or $400,000 that was altered in what I would consider a political way,” he said. “So I’d say out of a $16 million budget, that’s about as good as we can get – at least this year.”

It should be noted that HUD allowed some community development organizations to get funding this year, even though many of them scored relatively low during the application process.

Asked what would happen if a committee changed CDA’s recommendations next year, Heard said it would depend.

“If there’s a substantial [change], then it’s going to have to go back out for public comment,” Heard said. “And if the changes were something that’s not meeting our requirements, then we’re going to have to look at those things. So I don’t want to say blatantly that it will not funded. There may have to be some dialogue and some conversation going forward.”

While noting that the amendments didn’t go over well with HUD, Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for Mayor Francis Slay, said that he was expecting many more changes to CDA’s recommendations.

"The fact that we only had to make three amendments to the bill to get it passed overwhelmingly was borderline shocking. I expected it to be far more difficult,” said Rainford.

Ingrassia noted that President Barack Obama's administration has been openly encouraging using "participatory budgeting" to divide federal funds -- including community development block grants. She said she's going to look into how other cities divide block grant funds.

"I am interested in researching all possible solutions," she said. "I can’t really foresee the process that’s currently in place ever being the best way to allocate those funds." 

High hopes for next year -- and Wessels

Most people interviewed for this story predicted that the block grant process will be smoother next year, primarily because organizations vying for money will be more accustomed to the application process.

Heard said HUD will be providing more assistance to various groups vying for funding.

"It’s a work in progress," Heard said. "There are some hurdles that the city and all of us had to jump through. I think overall, the process is certainly gotten better. We are working to make it even better than what it is now. It’s still a work in progress."

One big change will take place in CDA: Wessels will be taking over as the agency’s director in early 2014. 

Alderman Fred Wessels, D-13th Ward
Credit (photo courtesy of Fred Wessels)

He said earlier this year that his main focus would be a new five-year plan for the block grant program. Another focus, he said, will be administering newly centralized housing dollars effectively. 

Rainford said Wessels will be “a good administrator as in he won’t put up with any nonsense.” And many of Wessels’ colleagues say he possesses the right experience – and temperament – for the post.

“One thing Fred is not going to do, he’s not going to sugarcoat it. He’s not going to fluff it up,” Flowers said. “And he’s going to tell you ‘this is the way how you get there – this is how you don’t.’ And if you don’t pass the test, then you can say in your heart that I know he did the right thing to overlook that. And I take it.”

Davis added that Wessels is “a taskmaster. He really follows the rules without hesitation and without any apology,” Davis said. “He also has a strong background in organization management. There won’t be such a learning curve.”

And Heard said Wessels “brings an understanding of where this thing needs to go. He has a lot of knowledge and information.”

“His tenure on the aldermanic board is going to be very beneficial to moving things on,” Heard said. “I think with his knowledge and everything, I think he’s going to be real fair and open to what is going to best for the city of St. Louis.”  

Ingrassia too said Wessels' experience and directness will be an asset. But she added "no matter how hard CDA and the mayor’s office work to recommend their funding, the aldermen can still do whatever they want at the end of the day before it passes out." 

"No matter though who’s in place, the issue's still is in the way the current system is set up," she added. 

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.