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Government, Politics & Issues

Aldermen debate new process for divvying up federal block grant funding

This article, first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 16, 2013 - The Board of Aldermen is mulling over how to divide the city’s share of federal community development block grant funds. Instead of being divided up among all the wards, the block grants would be distributed this year through a competitive bidding process administered by the Community Development Administration.

City officials testified this morning before the aldermanic Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee about these changes to the block grant process. That committee is considering a bill by HUDZ Chairman Fred Wessels, D-13th Ward to essentially bless the block grant recommendations. Wessels said the committee would vote on the legislation next week.

What are block grants?

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program gives local governments money to help with youth employment, services for senior citizens and building rehabilitation. It also funds community development organizations to improve housing quality, neighborhood beautification and community activities.

This year, St. Louis is applying for about $16.7 million in block grants -- a fraction of what it got in the 1970s, during the program's peak. The city's also applying for $2.3 million in HOME Investment Partnership funding for housing to low- and moderate-income residents.

“Were there growing pains? Yes,” Wessels said earlier this month. “I think the process we went through this year was by the book. It was clean.”

But not everybody is happy with taking the decision-making power away from individual aldermen.

Alderwoman Jennifer Florida, D-15th Ward, said she felt “somewhat disenfranchised” after looking at the funding recommendations.

And she wasn't alone.

Alderman Tom Villa, D-13th Ward, lamented that the Carondelet Community Betterment Foundation didn’t receive funding this year. Calling the new process “aloof,” Villa said, “We are better purveyors of what goes on in our ward certainly than a rather complex system.”

“A lot of underserved people that live in my ward benefit from the programs of the Carondelet Community Betterment Federation,” Villa said. “And it would really be a shame if those people in dire need of services from our federal government aren’t helped.”

Other aldermen and leaders questioned specific funding recommendations.

Last year, for example, community education centers received well over $300,000. This year, none has been allocated.

St. Louis Public School Superintendent Kelvin Adams told the committee he “clearly respects the decisions” the board has to make. But he said the programs – which include GED classes for adults and math and science tutoring – are “incredibly important.”

Alderman Chris Carter, D-27th Ward, said eliminating funding for community education centers in his ward would “put a dagger in the heart of my community.”

“If that closes, the crime in my community will continue to increase; it may even triple just with this one CEC closing,” Carter said. “I’m going to say that because most of the kids and parents and everyone in Walnut Park, that’s like a meeting place. It’s actually the center. And everyone utilizes it in some form or shape.”

Others expressed concerns about which community development organizations received funding. Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, questioned why some groups in south St. Louis received more money than some north St. Louis organizations.

For instance, the North Newstead Association in north St. Louis would receive $75,000 while the Dutchtown South Community Corporation in south St. Louis would get $130,000.

“What I worry is… when we map this out and show what areas are being touched by this, it looks to me right now that the largest concentrations of blight and low-income folks have big holes in coverage right now,” French said. “And that concerns me.”

Jill Claybour – the CDA’s interim director – noted that some block grant funding is going to groups that are not community development organizations but have a presence on the north side. For instance, the Northside Community Center would get $27,500 for an after-school club. And Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri has been recommended for $100,000.

She also said some central St. Louis-based organizations -- such as the DeSales Community Housing Corporation -- would be providing landlord training for individuals in north St. Louis.

But Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for Mayor Francis Slay, said that shifting away from the ward-by-ward system is part of a new reality for city government.

“We need thinking about opportunities that cross boundaries because the boundaries are artificial," said Rainford. "Very, very few people other than governments really pay much attention to the boundaries. And so, I do think there is still a broader role for aldermen. I just think it’s going to be different than ‘I got to focus on my boundaries.’ Because that’s not how the world works.”

How the new reality came about

For decades, block grant funds have been divided up by ward — some getting more than others. But when HUD officials met with aldermen in April, they said the ward-by-ward arrangement ran afoul of HUD regulations. James Heard, the director of HUD’s St. Louis field office, told the Beacon earlier this year that the process for dividing the block grant money should have been competitive, with public input and follow-up.

Since then, city officials have been working with HUD to put together a competitive bidding process. Instead of splitting up the money ward-by-ward, agencies now have to apply to the city’s Community Development Administration.

In an interview with the Beacon on Tuesday, Rainford said that process involves meeting certain criteria to get access to the funds. In general, he said, that included having “good intentions,” the “ability to do your good intentions” and an ability to “handle money cleanly.”

“I was not convinced that we were really reaching our goal for the community development block grant. Which, by the way, is also HUD’s goal,” Rainford said. “And that is to make these investments in reducing poverty and the effects of poverty to strengthen neighborhoods and to make neighborhood-based organizations stronger and more effective.”

For instance, instead of dividing home repair funds by ward, the city will now control the process, which could potentially result in a shorter waiting list.

But in the new system, fewer community development organizations are set to receive funding.

When last year’s grant was divvied up, 19 different organizations received about $2.1 million. Under the 2014 recommendations, only nine groups are set to receive about $960,000. Money to those organizations will go to specific programs, including ones that involve training landlords, conserving energy and beautifying neighborhoods.

Some of those organizations didn’t apply for funding, said Slay's deputy chief of staff Mary Ellen Ponder, while some collaborated with other organizations.

Rainford said the need to become “much more outcome based” meant that “unfortunately a few organizations with really good intentions whose administrative abilities are not very good” and “who got funded in the past because they knew somebody may not get funded in the future.”

“At the end of the day, HUD does come across as being pretty bureaucratic. But the more you know about it, the more understandable it is,” Rainford said. “It’s the taxpayers’ money. It needs to be handled well. It needs to have good outcomes. And it needs to be reported precisely.”

One other big change, Rainford said, is an increased focus on programs that go beyond a particular ward boundary. One example: a $1 million recommendation to pursue “strategic demolition” on Martin Luther King Boulevard, a project he says will have an impact far beyond a single ward.

Rainford also said Slay’s administration is making a conscious decision to support programs targeting “specific social issues.” One example, he said, was “under-banking” in north St. Louis. The CDA is recommending that $500,000 go to the St. Louis Community Credit Union to build the Gateway Branch for Economic Empowerment in north St. Louis.  

“A lot of people in north St. Louis do not have access to banking products,” Rainford said. “And so, we are supporting or proposing to support the construction of a bank branch in north St. Louis and then that’s being coupled with how our Affordable Housing Commission is going to make forgivable loans available to first time qualified homebuyers. That is a specific social issue that we’ve decided ourselves to take a leadership position on.”

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