Spoiling for a fight

October 04, 1991

After years of wrangling with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Baltimore is going to court to prevent HUD from cutting off federal block grant funds that support city agencies employing 300 people. Last week HUD moved to prohibit the city from spending some $8 million in block grant money because of alleged poor record keeping by the city housing department. The city disputes that claim and has filed suit in federal court to overturn the spending ban.

It's particularly unfortunate this case has come up now, when the recession and state budget cuts already are throwing hundreds of local employees out of work on top of those whose jobs are threatened by the federal cutoff. It's also ironic, because Baltimore has made a good faith effort to comply with the shifting maze of federal regulations that govern such grants.

This tug of war has been going on so long, in fact, that a fairly predictable pattern has begun to emerge. First HUD issues a new interpretation of some nit-picking regulation whose meaning had long been agreed upon, then threatens to cut off millions of dollars in federal funds.

Next, the two sides negotiate until a settlement seems possible. At that moment, HUD comes up with some new allegation that puts the whole imbroglio back on square one. This happens so regularly it's hard to avoid the suspicion some sort of political vendetta isn't motivating the dispute.

The skirmishing between HUD and the city is debilitating and demoralizing to officials already struggling to cope with the massive withdrawal of federal housing aid that the administrations rationalizes with the rubric of "eliminating waste and fraud." If HUD thinks public funds have been misspent, let it prove its case in court or cease what amounts to a campaign of bureaucratic harassment. We trust that if it comes to a fight, the city is on firm legal ground in refusing to knuckle under.

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