A federal entitlement program that for decades has supported everything from after-school programs to handicapped accessible crosswalks in Kingston is on the chopping block in President Donald J. Trump’s proposed budget. If adopted by Congress, the defunding of the Community Development Block Grant program would eliminate a major source of Kingston’s discretionary spending — and the only funds directly targeted to the city’s low income and at-risk population.
Trump’s budget proposal calls for a major expansion of the armed forces without a corresponding tax hike or additions to the federal deficit. To accomplish this, the spending plan proposes a direct transfer of $54 billion from domestic programs and foreign aid to the Pentagon. Among the domestic programs slated to be “zeroed out” — defunded entirely — is CDBG. The program initiated by Gerald Ford in 1974 directs federal block grants to localities to pay for infrastructure, programs and other assistance in census tracts that are home to large populations of low-income residents. The program is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs. HUD issues an annual award, then leaves decisions about how the money will be spent in the hands of municipalities. To receive reimbursement through the program, award recipients must demonstrate that they’ve spent the money in accordance with HUD rules and program criteria.
In Kingston, the grant, which totaled $670,000 last year, has been a reliable source of funding for youth programs including the Boys and Girls Club and after-school programs at the Everette Hodge and Rondout community centers. The grant has also paid for handicapped-accessible curb cuts and other infrastructure improvements. CDBG funding is also a key funding source for the city’s effort to help low-income residents make improvements to their homes and helps first-time homebuyers purchase properties in the city’s most distressed neighborhoods. The entitlement program has been a boon to communities like Kingston where up to 85 percent of the city’s budget is tied up fulfilling mandates and paying personnel costs.
“This is really important funding for cities like Kingston to have,” said Mayor Steve Noble this week. “Not a lot of federal aid makes its way to localities.”
While the entitlement program has proved popular with cash-strapped municipalities, it has also been plagued with problems ranging from inefficiency to outright corruption. In some places, the money has been treated as a kind of city hall pork barrel with grants going to reward local leaders’ political supporters or favored organizations, with little regard to making a positive impact on the lives of low income residents. Former mayor Shayne Gallo undertook a major reworking of the program’s administration in Kingston, claiming that the city had for years made a practice of giving small grants to organizations that either did little to help low-income residents or lacked the administrative capacity to comply with strict federal guidelines and follow-through on their proposals.
Noble has continued the effort to tighten up the award system by introducing a scoring system to rate proposals based on HUD criteria and requiring recipients to put up matching funds.
“In the old days who you knew or who you liked better got the funding,” said Noble. “Now it’s who is going to do the most good with this money.”
Part of the impetus for the new system has been stronger oversight by HUD which has introduced new guidelines and carried out wide-ranging audits of CDGB communities to crack down on misuse of the funds. Those guidelines have become more stringent even as the awards to Kingston have shrunk from over $1 million in 2009 to just $670,000 last year. Jennifer Fuentes, who administered the CDBG during part of the Gallo administration and later worked on it as a consultant, said the program had become progressively less user-friendly.
“The writing has been on the wall for many, many years,” said Fuentes of the proposed defunding. “It’s become much more daunting to administer [and] at the same time the grants keep getting smaller.”
The fate of the block grant program could hinge on Congressional Republicans who must approve the budget and seem likely to restore at least some of the cuts in Trump’s proposal. U.S. Rep John Faso (R-Kinderhook) who represents Kingston and sits on the committee charged with vetting Trump’s budget issued a prepared response to inquiries about the CDBG program.
“I am hearing from many of my constituents and share the same concerns about the cuts to domestic discretionary spending,” Faso stated in the release. “As a member of the House Budget Committee I am extensively reviewing the proposed budget and look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to address these concerns during this budget process.”
While the proposed elimination of the entitlement program wouldn’t take effect until 2018, local officials are still waiting to hear how much the city will receive this year. City Community Development Director Brenna Robinson, who has held the post since 2013, said this was the latest the city had gone without learning what the year’s CDBG allocation would be. Robinson added that she had reached out to local HUD officials about the future of the program, but had learned little.
“I spoke to the regional representative for the program,” said Robinson. “And he just said that as soon as he heard anything he would let us know.”
Noble and Fuentes, at least, expressed confidence that the entitlement program would survive the budget process. Both said that the program enjoyed broad support from local elected officials across the political spectrum who could be expected to lobby their Washington counterparts on its behalf.
“There will be a lot of pushback,” said Fuentes. “On the local level, it doesn’t matter if they’re Democrat or Republican, everyone loves this money.”