Committee of aldermen approves new plan to divvy up federal dough
A St. Louis Board of Aldermen committee approved recommendations divvying up federal block grants, a move that came after the city made wholesale changes to how it distributed the funds.
The passage of Alderman Fred Wessels’ legislation came after several weeks of hearings – and a successful amendment to redirect funding to other programs.
Prompted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city of St. Louis changed how it allocated community development block grants – also known as CDBGs. This year, instead of being divided up by ward, the block grant funds were distributed through a points-based bidding process administered by the Community Development Administration.
The block 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.
After three meetings of the Board of Aldermen’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee, the committee passed Wessels’ bill that effectively blesses funding recommendations. The 13th Ward Democrat’s bill passed 8 to 0 and now goes to the full board.
Supporters of the new system say that the old system of giving aldermen power to distribute the money in their wards was too political and often resulted in money not being spent effectively. The new process, supporters say, allows for the money to spent in ways that cross ward boundaries and make it easier to attract other sources of funding.
Mayor Francis Slay’s administration says the new process will allow for larger projects to be funded – including $1 million to refurbish Martin Luther King Blvd. and another $500,000 to help construct a bank in north St. Louis. They also note that instead of dividing home repair funds by ward, the city will now control the process, which could potentially result in a shorter waiting list.
Other programs receiving money from CDBG funds include:
- $100,000 for Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri
- $318,000 for the Expanded Recreation Program run by the city’s parks department
- $150,000 for Beyond Housing’s down payment and closing cost assistance program
- $200,000 for Justine Petersen’s microenterprise program
- $100,000 for the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club of St. Louis’ Out of School Youth Development Services.
While Wessels – the chairman of the HUDZ committee -- said while this year’s process wasn’t perfect, there’s potential for more accountability over certain initiatives and the ability to fund bigger projects.
He also applauded “HUD’s assistance and the consultants they provided us" who, he said, "made an impact on how we’re doing business.... There’s going to be a better monitoring system now in place at CDA than there has been in the past.”
But some aldermen on the committee were unhappy with how the money was allocated – which prompted a successful attempt to amend how the funds were distributed.
Some committee members expressed dismay that community education programs didn’t receive any block grant funding. Others lamented how fewer community development organizations are set to receive funding.
Under the 2014 recommendations, only nine groups are set to receive about $960,000. Some of those organizations didn’t apply for funding, while some collaborated with other organizations.
Because of the way the block grants were structured, committee members had to take away funding from certain programs if they wanted to increase or add funding to other endeavors.
Terry Kennedy, D-18th Ward, offered an amendment that gave $180,000 to community education centers; $75,000 to the North Newstead Association; and $75,000 to the St. Louis Community Empowerment Foundation.
To fund those programs, the amendment took away $30,000 for Nance Elementary’s America Scores after school program; $50,000 for Grand Center District Beautification Project; $57,500 for the Hi-Pointe Center, Inc. food pantry; $42,500 for nutritional services for people with HIV/AIDS or cancer; $50,000 for a Washington University program – The Spot -- provides medical testing for STD and AIDs; and $100,000 for the DeSales Community Housing Corporation for landlord training.
The committee voted 7-1 to pass Kennedy’s amendment. Only Wessels voted against it.
Kennedy emphasized that some of the programs – including America Scores and the Spot – applied for money under different programs.
“This wasn’t a simple process,” Kennedy said. “Everyone feels that the programs and projects they have are very important. We’re doing the best we can at this time.”
Wessels said during the committee hearing that he “can’t see how anyone with a conscience would vote to eliminate those kinds of services for what we’re proposing to fund.”
“When we down here at the Board of Aldermen try to micromanage the funding grants in committee, it eliminates the professional scrutiny that was done in the Community Development Agency,” Wessels said. “And politics becomes a priority and I don’t think that’s always the most efficient way to provide public services.”
Frustration and hope
In an interview after the meeting, Kennedy said he had some satisfaction that the amendment did pass. But he said changing over to the new system for distributing block grants has been difficult.
He said that the prior system of divvying up money by ward was still competitive, but the new process heaps “requirements upon the organizations and the institutions that have applied” for funding.
“This city is not economic equitable. Everybody’s not middle class,” Kennedy said. “There are some poor people. And so the areas where there has been disenfranchisement, there’s less of ability to apply for these very complicated applications. So these areas end up not getting served or served by outside organizations who just feel benevolent to try to help out that portion of the city.”
He added, “Block grant money comes specifically for the areas that have the greatest blight. Well, the areas that have the greatest blight are in north St. Louis. In theory, if that is the case, then we should really be looking at 70 or 80 percent coming into north St. Louis. We need it. But that is not the case. So this new 'process' has not resolved that problem.”
Wessels said that the block grant distribution process may go smoother next year when organizations have more time to get acclimated to the system.
“This was a very short window. There were tons of new information to process – plus get an ordinance passed that actually allocates money was difficult. Next year gives us more time,” Kennedy said.
But Kennedy added that some organizations will “have to build a greater capacity” to be able to apply for funding.
In an earlier interview with the Beacon, Slay chief of staff Jeff Rainford said he “was a little surprised that HUD said do it this year, which meant we had to move along quicker than we would have expected.”
“But in retrospect, I’m glad that they did. Because this could be one of these things that sort of languishes,” Rainford said. “And by really requiring us to hop to it, we really had to be focused on the process and the (request for proposals) and the selection itself. And not everybody’s going to be happy. They’re going to be some organizations that actually probably do really good work that don’t meet the administrative criteria. There’s also not enough money to go around on top of it all.”