Archive for Thursday, March 17, 2005

Possible federal budget measure could hit home

Reductions to block grant program would cost city $100,000 annually

March 17, 2005

A federal program that has helped pay for a number of projects sprucing up De Soto's older sections might not be available should Congress approve a recommendation in the Bush Administration's fiscal year 2006 budget.

Surrounded by seven area mayors and the head of Johnson County government at a Friday press conference, Rep. Dennis Moore asked for help stopping an administration plan to make changes and cut funding to the federal community development block grant program.

The program makes money available to states, which in turn distributes the cash to local jurisdictions for projects benefiting seniors and those in low- to moderate-income groups. In Johnson County, the county administers the program, distributing the money to its own programs and to its cities.

In the last five years, De Soto has received approximately $100,000 a year in CDBG funds. Annual distributions have been used for such things as a new roof on the Community Center, downtown sidewalks and the repaving of 83rd Street downtown.

The city's 2005 CDBG project, which is not threatened by the proposed cut for fiscal year 2006, is the completion of the sidewalk along Lexington Avenue from its current terminus at Commerce Drive to Lexington Trails Middle School. That project is to include a pedestrian tunnel under the railroad overpass.

The Bush administration is proposing the CDBG program be moved from Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Commerce Department, Moore said. There it would be consolidated with other federal programs, and its $5.3 billion budget reduced by 35 percent.

In announcing what it called Strengthening America's Communities Initiative, administration officials said the proposal was part of the president's campaign pledge to consolidate and end redundant or ineffective programs. The administration contends economic development programs were too widely distributed and more appropriately administered in the Commerce Department.

Under proposed new guidelines, remaining funds would only be available for the most economically distressed communities, which would eliminate funding for Johnson County.

"Believe it or not, we still have poverty in Johnson County," Moore said. "The administration's proposal would limit CDBG funding to only the most distressed communities, effectively abandoning efforts to help the millions of low-income persons living in middle-income and higher-income communities.

"Investing now in this vital federal program for our Kansas communities will pay dividends for our future economic well-being."

Sitting next to Moore, Johnson County Commission Chair Annabeth Surbaugh said the number of county residents living at or below federal poverty standards had increased by 23,000 in the past five years.

Last week, Moore offered an amendment in the House Budget Committee that would preserve the CDBG program at its current funding level. However, the House budget resolution passed out of the committee with the administration's recommendations -- the first step in the 2006 budget approval process.

Moore said a bipartisan effort could preserve the CDBG program under HUD's administration.

Such an effort was already underway, said Surbaugh, who ran as a Republican before the county adopted a non-partisan election process for County Commission positions. She had already lobbied the state's congressional delegation against the administration's proposal. The National Association of Counties also came to a rare quick agreement to fight the legislation, she said.

"We don't do politics at the local level; we build communities," she said. "CDBG was all about building communities."

The proposal was the latest example of the federal government shifting the tax burden to local governments, Surbaugh said.

The county uses CDBG funds for a wide range of programs. Those include home rehabilitation efforts, the district attorney's white collar crime team, aid to those with physical disabilities, scholarships for underprivileged children to attend county park district day camps and outreach to the homeless.

In addition to aiding the poor, aged and disabled, the CDBG program has served as an economic development tool, Bonner Springs Mayor Clausie Smith said. His city used funds from the grant program to spruce up downtown. As a result, the city was able to recruit a computer software company, he said.

De Soto Mayor Dave Anderson was out of town and was not available to attend the meeting or for comment.

Because of De Soto's demographic breakdown, CDBG funds could be used for capital projects anywhere in the city limits, De Soto City Administrator Greg Johnson said. However, the De Soto City Council had concentrated its efforts on the old-town area, he said.

He didn't know how the proposed changes would affect the city's eligibility for CDBG funding, Johnson said. But should the city remain eligible for some funds, he wouldn't welcome any change to the current county-administered program, which was nearly hassle free for the city, Johnson said. Any change that would require the city to apply for grants directly to the federal government would take much more staff time, he said.

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