Threatened block grant program 'irreplaceable'

Officials throughout the county say grants help keep people in their homes, fuel local business

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"Has not demonstrated results."

That's one reason President Donald Trump gave this week for eliminating a $3 billion grant program to cities and towns.

Leaders in Berkshire County beg to differ.

"For us it's irreplaceable," said North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright. "We rely on this money for so many things."

"It's been significant to us for years," said Tony Mazzucco, the Adams town administrator.

And in South Berkshire, money from the Community Development Block Grant program has helped low- and moderate-income residents stay in their homes.

"This is not about putting in top-end appliances and granite countertops in their houses," said Christopher Rembold, Great Barrington's town planner. Since 2008, his community has steered over $2 million in CDBG money to rehab projects in the village of Housatonic.

"These are grants for people who need serious work on their homes to stay in their homes," Rembold said.

The budget the president sent to Congress this week proposes to halt funding for an array of agencies.

For municipal leaders, the sharpest cut might be the loss of the CDBG program overseen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. While its overall budget is marked for a $6.2 billion cut, a reduction of 13.2 percent, all of the department's CDBG money is zeroed out.

The president's message to Congress is that state and local governments need to handle "community and economic development needs."

Since 1974, the grant program has provided states with more than $150 billion to distribute to communities for projects that benefit low-income people.

Page 25 of Trump's budget alleges that CDBG money "is not well-targeted to the poorest populations."

"That's totally fake news. That's what I have to say," said Bonnie C. Galant, Pittsfield's acting director of community development.

Across Berkshire County, officials tick off dozens of projects they say have improved life in hard-pressed neighborhoods.

Linda M. Tyer, Pittsfield's mayor, said losing the grant program would have "devastatingly negative impacts as we work to protect our most vulnerable citizens."

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, predicted Friday that defenders of the CDBG program will rise to defend it in Congress. He noted in an interview with The Eagle that the program began during the Nixon administration with backing from a Democratic Congress.

"It's worked wonders," Neal said of the program. "I think that Republican as well as Democratic mayors would be resistant to cuts to the CDBG program. I am certainly adamant in my opposition to that, having been a former mayor."

In communities up and down the county, grants have been targeted to economically distressed areas. Because of the way federal budgeting works, any funding loss would likely hit in the 2019 fiscal year, officials said.

ADAMS

Mazzucco, the Adams town administrator, said his community receives between $600,000 and $900,000 in CDBG grant funding a year, much of it for housing rehab work. That money is paid to private contractors, putting the dollars into circulation in the region.

By improving the town's housing stock, the entire community gains, Mazzucco said.

"Those are a marketable benefit to business owners," he said. "You'd think a business-friendly president would want to back programs that help the private sector."

The town is applying for CDBG money for improved parking at the visitors center to enable it to handle increased use with the advent of scenic railroad trips.

"We're trying to get the economy to grow. That's why you have these programs," Mazzucco said.

He dismissed the assertion that the program fails to help poor people. Wealthy communities don't receive CDBG funding, Mazzucco noted; only poor ones qualify. "What you're really doing is cutting a program that's beneficial to poorer communities."

GREAT BARRINGTON

Rembold, the Great Barrington town planner, said CDBG money has been used in the village of Housatonic to fix sidewalks, roads and drains and for housing improvements.

Without the $2 million tapped in the last decade, he said his community would not have been able to help people of limited means put new roofs on their houses, saving them from ruin. Repairs tend to be more expensive in more affluent communities, including Great Barrington, putting poor homeowners at a disadvantage.

"This program helps people who already live here stay in their homes, which is essential for a thriving town," Rembold said.

In one grant round, the community sought to rehab 15 homes, but was able to stretch it to 17.

The neighboring town of Sheffield is taking the lead on a current CDBG in conjunction with Great Barrington. The funding is vital to rehab work in the region, Rembold said.

"Once that foundation is taken away, either state or local municipalities will have to backfill that, and it means we'll have less of an impact," he said. "Cutting the program would have a devastating impact on low-income people and on communities."

NORTH ADAMS

North Adams has received as much as $900,000 a year from the CDBG program, but that's fallen to $825,000.

Alcombright, the city's mayor, said money has been used to improve its skating rink and for work on the old armory.

"Our vision very soon is to make that into a community center," he said.

In addition, $276,000 has been tapped for a skate park project on the site of the former Modern Liquors building on State Street. The city used a CDBG allocation as matching funds for another state grant for the skate park.

Like Pittsfield, North Adams has also used the grant program to demolish derelict buildings, including two on West Main Street and one on Hall Street. It also is able to steer funding to human services programs.

Alcombright said he is alarmed to see the program facing the ax.

"It's kind of shock and awe to me right now about the things that are being discussed," he said of federal budgeting. "I could go on for an hour talking about how important this is to the city and the shortsightedness of taking it away."

PITTSFIELD

The city of Pittsfield's CDBG allocation, based on a HUD formula used nationwide, is $1,145,951, down about $500,000 from 2010.

At least 70 percent of that money must benefit low- and moderate-income people, said Galant, the acting director of community development.

The most visible use of the money this month has been the demolition of six vacant homes or buildings. The last one standing, on South Church Street, is due to fall by March 24, all part of an anti-blight drive.

Work on Durant Park, on Columbus Avenue, used $70,000 from the federal program. Other monies are spent on housing rehab, particularly in the Westside and Morningside neighborhoods, on neighborhood cleanups and for economic development loans.

Up to 15 percent of a community's grants can be applied to human-service programs. In this fiscal year, the city allotted $154,500 to eight such programs.

Loss of the funding would hit Galant's own office hard.

As many as 6.8 full-time equivalent positions in the community development office are funded through the grant program. Those positions would be lost if alternate funding isn't found, Galant said.

Galant said the city has been tapping CDBG money for 38 years, joining a program that's long enjoyed bipartisan backing in Congress, she noted.

"Governors love this program and of course mayors do," Galant said.

Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.



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