Mayor Shayne Gallo appeared at a public hearing last Monday evening to blast the Common Council’s decision to fund projects by three not-for-profit groups, saying that the proposal would be a waste of scant resources and a blow to his effort to bring efficiency and accountability to the city’s Community Development Office.
“For nine years I watched the Community Development Office not only being misused, but abused,” Gallo told the audience, many of whom had come to speak in support of the projects he opposed. “I’m not going to continue that.”
At issue is how to divide up $617,000 available under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-funded Community Development Block Grant program for community projects and services. The program directs federal dollars for programs and facilities to benefit residents of the nation’s poorest census tracts. Locally, each year dozens of not-for-profits compete for a share of the award. (Another chunk is set aside for infrastructure improvements and other city-administered programs.) After vetting by the city Community Development Office, an advisory board, an outside consultant and the mayor, the Common Council has final say on where the money goes.
In the past, according to Gallo and Community Development Director Jennifer Fuentes, the program has been riddled with inefficiency, mismanagement and waste. Some projects were funded, only later to be found ineligible because they fell outside the entitlement zone or ran afoul of other HUD guidelines. In other cases, small grants were given to grass-roots not-for-profits that lacked the expertise to comply with strict and complex HUD rules or were short of the additional funds to follow projects through to completion. The resulting backlog of unused funds and un-filed paperwork, Gallo said, threatened access to a vital source of funding for projects which would otherwise be out of reach in cash-strapped Kingston.
The proposal submitted to the council reflected Gallo’s plan for a more focused allocation of funds. The majority of the grants have been awarded to large, well-established nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Club, which received $51,000 for facility improvements, or city-administered services like the Rondout Community Center and code enforcement. Then, last month, the Community Development Committee of the Common Council weighed in, raising the mayor’s ire when they eliminated CDBG funding for a water quality study and divided the funds between three not-for-profit groups. The committee granted $35,000 to the Hudson River Maritime Museum to remove three underground oil tanks uncovered during recent construction. $15,000 was set aside for a fence at the YMCA facility on Pine Grove Avenue and another $15,000 for a design study on a proposed natural playspace at George Washington Elementary School. The full council will vote on CDBG funding allocation next month.
At the April 1 public hearing, Gallo waited until about a dozen speakers, including several George Washington Elementary School students, spoke in support of the proposals. He then launched into a lengthy explanation of why he would oppose all three.
The YMCA, he told the crowd “has received enough money,” including past CDBG grants to pay down a loan provided by the Kingston Local Development Corporation. Besides, he said, the fence in question would benefit an adjacent private property owner, not the YMCA. Gallo accused the MaritimeMuseum of ignoring repeated requests by the Community Development Office for additional information regarding past grant awards and questioned supporters’ claims that the museum was a major driver of tourism on the city’s waterfront. The GW playspace, he said, was a worthy project but one that would likely never come to fruition because the school district lacked the money and resources to follow through on the design study.
“We’re going to spend $15,000 for a design study for a project that will not be funded for several years, if at all by the Kingston school system,” said Gallo, who added that the GW Parent teacher organization did not “have the capacity to do what they say they are going to do in their application.”
A short time after the hearing ended, after huddling with playspace supporter Rebecca Martin and HRMM board member Jack Weeks, Gallo backed off his outright rejection of those projects in a conversation with reporters. Gallo said he would reconsider his opposition and review whether the two groups would in fact be able to follow through on the grant awards. He remained opposed to the YMCA fencing project. (Editor’s note: According to Martin, the $15,000 playspace application would cover both design and construction, not just design.)
Regardless of his decision, however, it remains unclear what if anything he could do to reverse the committee’s decision. Gallo held open the threat of a veto on the entire funding proposal, which would force the council to revise the plan before it could be submitted to HUD for approval.
But council Majority Leader Tom Hoffay said that he was confident of the six votes necessary to override a veto. Hoffay also defended the changes, saying that the Common Council had always had a say in the CDBG allocation. Ward 8 Alderman Bob Senor, who introduced resolutions to fund all three projects, said Gallo was giving short shrift to the council’s authority over the entitlement funds and the city’s grassroots volunteers.
“That’s why there’s two branches of government, the mayor has his agenda and we have ours,” said Senor. “To pick on these small volunteer groups that make our community strong is an insult.”