City aims to get by on less

Federal cuts hurt local programs

April 14, 2006|By JOHN FRITZE | JOHN FRITZE,SUN REPORTER

From the collapsed ceiling to the long-missing crystal doorknobs, every part of the two-story home on Chesterfield Avenue was a wreck - just another vacant Baltimore rowhouse, destined to stay that way indefinitely.

But two years ago, a city schoolteacher saw promise in the ruin and, with the help of Belair-Edison Neighborhoods Inc. - a neighborhood group funded partly with federal money - he renovated the eyesore into a home and a point of pride for the burgeoning community along Belair Road.

"It was awful, but it was perfect," said George W. Johnson III, who took out a $34,000 low-interest loan through the housing group to pay for construction. "We wanted something we could put our own fingerprint on."

As Baltimore officials negotiate the city's proposed $2.38 billion budget for next year, they are struggling to fund dozens of community programs such as Belair-Edison that were once paid for with federal money but now face deep cuts.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration and a candidate for governor, has requested $12 million in city money next year to plug holes left by federal funding reductions.

"Over the last seven years, we've seen cuts each year that are having a cumulative effect on critical programs and services," said Raquel M. Guillory, an O'Malley spokeswoman. "In cities like Baltimore, those cuts in funding are having a huge impact."

Federal grants represent $273 million, or 11 percent of Baltimore's current budget, making it the third-largest source of revenue for the city behind property taxes and service charges, such as filing fees. The money is used broadly, for inner-city redevelopment, after-school programs and drug treatment.

Mayors across the country have decried reductions in federal funding to cities in recent years. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, which represents about 1,180 cities with populations of 30,000 or more, reports that cities have lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Federal COPS grants, once used to hire new police officers, fell off 15 percent to $2.3 billion nationwide last year, according to the mayors association. Homeland security grants dropped 15 percent, to $3.4 billion.

Community Development Block Grants, intended to strengthen low- to moderate-income neighborhoods, are among the most controversial federal programs on the chopping block. The 30-year-old program was cut 10 percent last year, to about $3.7 billion nationwide, and could tumble another $700 million in the next federal budget.

For Baltimore, that would result in about a $3 million drop in CDBG money next year, bringing the city's allocation to $24 million, Guillory said.

Cities are facing the reductions not only because the Bush administration has cut the program but also because more areas have become eligible to receive the money - stretching limited dollars.

Critics of the program point to the 30-year-old formulas that dictate how money is distributed and say the criteria, such as the age of housing stock, are no longer good indicators of need. Wealthier cities are sometimes prioritized ahead of less affluent ones.

A spokesman with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers CDBG money, responded to questions by forwarding congressional testimony given this week to the House Housing and Community Opportunity subcommittee by HUD Assistant Secretary Pamela H. Patenaude.

The program's impact "has become diffused over time," the statement read. "Over the past decade, we have witnessed steady erosion in the ability of the formula to target CDBG funding to community development need."

Others say the money was never significant enough to have a serious impact in the first place.

"The money's distributed by formula to cities and counties, so everybody in America gets a CDBG grant," said Ron Utt, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "It's not a ... make or break amount of money for anybody."

But the funding is critical for small groups such as Belair-Edison, which was founded in 1980 to serve 18,000 residents nestled between Herring Run Park and Sinclair Lane. About 20 percent of the group's funding, roughly $79,000 a year, comes from federal grants, said Executive Director Barbara Aylesworth.

On that relatively small budget, the organization provides an extensive range of services, such as offering one-on-one counseling for homebuyers, sponsoring block cleanups and other events, and connecting prospective business tenants and residents to vacant properties. The group even identifies and reaches out to residents at risk of foreclosure.

"The city gets a lot of bang for its buck," Aylesworth said.

And so did Johnson. Unsure of where to buy, the English teacher ran across the Belair-Edison group at a home fair two years ago. Its representatives showed him the home, helped cut red tape surrounding its sale, approved a renovation loan and identified grant money that he used to replace a stolen stained-glass transom.

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