- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2002

A fund to help poor communities has evolved into a massive pork-barrel conduit for members of Congress and their hometown projects costing more than $300 million this year, a government watchdog group says.
However, a key provision in President Bush's budget would redirect the funds to their original use, upsetting rich communties that are benefiting from the taxpayer dollars.
The community development block grant program has become "diluted by the inclusion of some of the richest cities in the country," says the budget document now awaiting Senate approval.
The program began in 1976 to help low- and middle-income communities but has been used by Congress in the past decade for local projects.
The budget would reduce grants to the wealthiest 1 percent of eligible communities, or those with per capita income twice the national average.
This year there are 827 earmarks for the grants totaling $334 million for opera houses, theaters, museums and other local projects.
They include $2.2 million for Fairbanks, Alaska, to provide winter recreation opportunities, $1 million for the Southern New Mexico Fair and Rodeo, $2.4 million to restore six zoos and $340,000 to restore opera houses in Connecticut, Michigan and Washington.
"This is clearly one of the most egregious areas of pork-barrel spending," said Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
The watchdog group has examined this year's appropriations completed by Congress in late December, and has included it in its annual "Pig Book" of congressional pork projects set for release next month.
"It was well intended then Congress saw it as a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and put their hands into it. It's basically a big slush fund for members to look good back home," Mr. Schatz said.
Mr. Bush's budget proposal "makes an awful lot of sense," Mr. Schatz said.
"The only way to get this under control is to return it to its intended purpose, and that is to target communities that really need help and cut off those who don't."
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, singled out the block grant program for criticism during the appropriations process.
"Senator McCain objected to members here in Congress earmarking grants before actually sending it to communities as actual block grants, which is what they were intended to be, and dispersed on the local level," said Nancy Ives, Mr. McCain's spokeswoman.
The affluent counties of Westchester, N.Y., and Greenwich, Conn., would see their funding cut in half.
Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano said his community's affluent reputation and high income should not disqualify it from the program.
"The picture that people see here is not an appropriate picture," Mr. Spano told a Westchester newspaper.
Westchester is ranked as the sixth least-affordable area in the country by the National Low Income Coalition, and officials said the grant money would have been used for affordable housing, playgrounds and senior citizen centers.
"That's what makes that potential cut so devasting," Mr. Spano said.
One Greenwich official told the New York Times the means testing "doesn't make sense. Greenwich has families in all income categories."


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