Grant funds earmarked in advance City action upsets community groups BALTIMORE CITY

June 25, 1993|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Staff Writer

An article June 25 about a future hearing on Communit Development Block Grant funds reported incorrectly that Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore's housing commissioner, could not be reached to comment. In fact, Mr. Henson returned a reporter's call in the early evening and left a message on voice mail.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Baltimore's new housing commissioner is holding a public hearing on how to spend $27.8 million in 1994 federal neighborhood grants, but he has made it clear to neighborhood groups that most of the money is already committed to specific projects.

Daniel P. Henson III invited representatives from community groups to the July 1 Community Development Block Grant public hearing at City Hall but warned them in a May 7 letter that "the city has decided not to solicit proposals" for the block grants "because our commitments to projects and communities far exceed anticipated funding."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The decision has angered many community representatives who said they hoped to attend the hearing and detail plans to revitalize their neighborhoods with the federal grants.

"I was very concerned because it appears that all the decisions have already been made and this was not an open process," said Karen Stokes, executive director of the Coalition for Low Income Community Development, a national advocacy group based in Baltimore. "It is demoralizing to say to grass-roots organizations come to a hearing, but . . . right now we have mixed signals."

Mr. Henson's letter said the department will not use the public hearing to solicit proposals for next year's block grants because the money is already committed.

"It is our intent to use the available funds to complete or initiate activities for development projects, continue funding of essential city and public services and provide funding to various community groups and organizations for their continued operations," the letter stated.

Mr. Henson could not be reached last night for comment on the letter.

Zack Germroth, a spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, said yesterday that funds have been tentatively earmarked and that the "money can be moved around at this point."

"We are trying not to create a false impression that there's gobs and gobs of money," he said.

The department has received requests totaling nearly $100 million for the 1994 block grants, but the city will receive only $27.8 million, Mr. Germroth said. Despite the wording of Mr. Henson's letter, the department is still accepting proposals, he said.

"The letter says not to raise our expectations beyond our capabilities," Mr. Germroth said. "To add [more proposals now] does not make any sense. It does not make sense to request more proposals when we have well over three times the amount we can fund."

Block grants were established about 20 years ago to combat urban blight and to fund projects that benefit low-income and moderate-income residents. The city has received a total of $596.7 million in block grant funding.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that administers the block grants, has criticized city housing officials for the last few years in the wake of audits that concluded the city did not always spend the money to eliminate urban blight.

City housing officials also have come under fire for failing to spend the block grant money fast enough -- the city has a backlog of $35 million in unspent block grant money, HUD officials said.

Last year, the city's block grant totaled $25.4 million, and 64 community groups were awarded grants totaling $8 million, Mr. Germroth said.

The remaining money was spent a variety of projects that included cleaning and boarding up vacant city houses, loans to low-income homeowners, acquisition and demolition of properties, economic development and security in public housing high-rises.

Representatives from two neighborhood groups said they are optimistic that block grant funding will increase under the Clinton administration. And, though they were discouraged by Mr. Henson's letter, they predicted that it will motivate people to attend the hearing.

"We're saying hold on, please be open to some new neighborhoods. There is a lot of need for a lot of money through block grant funding," said Patricia McCulloch, associate director the Save our Cities coalition, a group of more than 100 community organizations.

"We're going into this hearing with the hope that once we demonstrate the need, they'll realize they have to include grass-roots people," said Ruth Crystal, executive director of the Maryland Low-Income Housing Coalition.

"I'm assuming that when he sees this outcry that he'll change things."

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