$34 million for Eastside held up Activists, others irate that council adjourned without releasing funds

June 19, 1996|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Some community leaders and city officials are furious that the City Council adjourned for the summer before giving final approval to a bill allowing $34 million in federal loan funds to flow into East Baltimore neighborhoods.

Saying the delay in approval will set back plans to demolish and renovate hundreds of vacant houses around the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, they are accusing council leaders of playing politics with the money and are planning a rally at City Hall today to demand an explanation.

"It's just disheartening," the Rev. Milton E. Williams, pastor of New Life Evangelical Baptist Church, said yesterday. "The folks in East Baltimore need the money for the rebuilding of our houses that are deteriorating."

Leaders of the council -- which gave preliminary approval to the bill at the council's final session June 10 -- deny the accusations and blame the city's housing department for not providing information about the loan program quickly enough.

Final approval of the bill providing for a supplemental federal capital appropriation is expected when the council returns at the end of September, they say.

Council President Lawrence A. Bell III acknowledged that the council could have suspended its rules with a three-quarters majority vote and given both preliminary and final approval to the bill last week. But he said, "We wanted to be prudent.

"There was no attempt to obstruct this. It's moving forward," said Bell, who abstained from the preliminary vote.

Bell blamed part of the community concern on unnamed "culprits out there who may be confusing people." Some leaders and officials were "greatly overstating" the effect of the delay, he added.

But those leaders and officials said any delay would have a demoralizing impact on residents of the area, part of the multimillion-dollar federal empowerment zone revitalization effort.

"In the global scheme of things, three months is not a long time," said Michael V. Seipp, head of the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition, a public-private partnership that will administer the funds. "If you're living in the midst of 12 vacant houses, it's pretty bad."

At stake is money to demolish 400 dilapidated houses and renovate 500 more. The money comes from a federal loan program designed to speed neighborhood rehabilitation projects.

The money is to be repaid from the city's annual federal appropriation for Community Development Block Grants, which total about $30 million a year. The $34 million would nearly double the amount of money the city has received under the loan program.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has given preliminary approval to the loan, with final approval expected soon. But Baltimore can't begin using the money until the council passes the bill.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who often has been at odds with key council members, said the council delayed the bill for "petty reasons," hurting Baltimore's credibility with federal officials: "This makes us look like a bunch of buffoons," he said.

Second District Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, who represents the area, said she was "very upset" with the council leadership for not passing the bill.

"I think it was totally unnecessary to play games with this legislation," she said.

Some East Baltimore leaders want the council to hold a special session, but both Bell and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said they would not convene such a meeting.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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