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Mayors balk at cuts to community grants

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2011

A bipartisan chorus of mayors nationwide is crying foul over a House Republican proposal to slash funding for a popular grant program, warning that everything from job training and child nutrition to homeless shelters and senior care will be devastated.

Local government leaders already were concerned when President Obama's fiscal 2012 budget included a 7.5-percent reduction in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) — a decades-old program used to help cities pay for affordable housing, anti-poverty, infrastructure development and other community initiatives.

But then they saw what House Republicans had planned for the CDBG: a whopping 62.5 percent cut — about $2.5 billion.

"It's an irresponsible, vicious and hateful attack on the lower middle class," said Bill Gluba, mayor of Davenport, Iowa. "What kind of country is this that we would do this to the least fortunate in our society, and let those at the top off? It's immoral."

Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter, Democrat, called the proposed cuts "outrageous, unacceptable and un-American."

Many Capitol Hill Republicans, particularly those supported by the tea party movement, view the CDBG program as little more than a government handout. They add that the slumping economy means fiscal belt-tightening is needed across all levels of government.

But many local leaders say they are being forced to absorb an unfair share of federal cuts.

"I have spent a fair amount of time in Washington. Many of the people who are talking about the CDBG program have no idea what this program is," Mr. Nutter said.

The Republican-controlled House included the CDBG cuts in a massive spending bill that would keep the federal government funded through the end September after the current deal expires next week. The bill passed the chamber last month but failed in the Senate on Wednesday.

Local leaders worry a compromise deal between the House and Senate could resurrect the deep cuts.

"I hope that the House can work together to reach a compromise that will not decimate our local communities," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa.

Mr. Villaraigosa, Democrat, said his city will face almost a $50 million shortfall for social programs if the cuts go through. Unless the cash-strapped city can make up the difference, he estimates 10,840 children will lose access to recreation and nutritional programs.

Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer, Democrat, in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the $8 million in cuts to his city would "cause considerable disruption and fiscal distress" to low- and moderate-income residents.

Mr. Gluba, Democrat, said the $1.8 million in CDBG money Davenport received last year helped subsidize senior programs, a homeless shelter run by Catholic nuns and Big Brother Big Sisters of America activities.

"It's a very flexible kind of funding — it allows you to use it in lots of different areas," said Mark McDonald, spokesman for Mr. Nutter. "Cities and counties across the country really see the utility in it."

About 31 percent of CDBG grants are used for public facilities investments, according to the Housing and Urban Development Department, which oversees the program. Seven percent is used for economic development and about 26 percent for housing activities.

"Every year, the people who work in our communities send money to Washington," said Elizabeth Kautz of Burnsville, Minn., president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "Nothing comes back to us but for CDBG."

Many Capitol Hill Republicans say cities would be better served if the federal government could balace its budget and lower taxes — leaving more money for communities to invest in social service programs.

CDBG proponents say that logic falsely assumes that cutting federal taxes would result in an equal amount of revenue flowing in from other sources.

"One of the strengths of a program like CDBG is that it's there for cities every year," said Michael Wallace, National League of Cities' program director for housing and community development. "Cities come to rely on a stable source of funding like CDBG."

Mr. Gluba added that Davenport's tax structure is fixed and that the city doesn't have the ability to easily raise money to cover any CDBG cuts.

"Unlike Washington, we can't print [money]," said the mayor, who was in Washington this week to lobby Congress against the cuts. "We don't have the various forms of taxation" like the federal government, he said.

The National League of Cities, a powerful lobbying force for municipal governments, will press Congress to resist the cuts when the group meets in Washington for its annual conference beginning Saturday.

The league, along with the Conference of Mayors and the National Association of Counties, have urged Congress to fund CDBG at $4 billion, the same as last year.

"This will be a topic all week," Mr. Wallace said.

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