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Published: Friday, 7/20/2012

Untoward influence

Sometimes, it's not what you know but who you know that counts. Ask the Toledo City Council members who raided taxpayer funds to offset cuts in federal money that the city is awarding to the Economic Opportunity Planning Association of Greater Toledo.

Each year, an independent citizens' review panel recommends how Toledo officials should allocate federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, which have shrunk. EOPA's emergency home-repair program scored low in the panel's assessment, while four homeless shelters -- Bethany House, Family House, Aurora House, and La Posada -- scored well.

This year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development cut Toledo's CDBG share by 3 percent, to $6.8 million. Instead of cutting every CDBG recipient by the same percentage, the review panel proposed cutting money for EOPA's home-repair program from $375,000 to $200,000.

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The citizens' panel also recommended that the allocation to the shelters be reduced to zero. It apparently did so on the advice of Toledo's Neighborhoods Department, which along with the Toledo Lucas County Homelessness Board wants to emphasize quick returns to permanent housing for shelter clients.

The shelters cried foul. So did EOPA. Since the city's new budget year began July 1, City Council members were looking a bit foolish because they couldn't agree how to distribute the CDBG funds.

Last week, after City Council couldn't approve a seventh plan, Mayor Mike Bell's office proposed restoring $50,000 to EOPA and $162,500 to the four shelters. This week, council members adopted a plan to restore less to the shelters ($145,000) and more to EOPA ($70,000).

That money will come out of the city capital improvements fund. When voters approved a ballot proposal in 2010 to allow the city to use more revenues from its 0.75 percent "temporary" income tax for general-fund needs rather than capital improvements, they expected the money would be spent on police and fire protection. Using it to replace block-grant funds breaks with the spirit of the ballot issue.

The council vote is a one-year fix. The shelters and EOPA could be back next year, seeking more help. It should be made clear they can't return to this well.

The bigger question: How did EOPA, which the review panel criticized for its high staff salaries and its failure to provide evidence that it had secured matching funds for its federal grant money, benefit at the shelters' expense? "A lot has to do with political patronage," Councilman Adam Martinez acknowledged.

The shelters perform valuable services for homeless, abused, mentally ill, and substance-addicted Toledoans, but they have little political influence. EOPA has plenty. Past EOPA board members include state Sen. Edna Brown, the wife of state Rep. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo), and Mayor Bell's father.

EOPA isn't afraid to throw its weight around. When Toledo Public Schools expressed interest in running the local Head Start program that EOPA has administered for nearly four decades, the African-American-run planning association warned that black voters would not forget that when school levies appeared on future city ballots.

James Powell, EOPA's chief executive officer, made the rounds to tell council members how important the home-repair program is. He didn't say whether he addressed criticism of the program. But he got some funding restored anyway -- at the expense of the shelters.

That sends the wrong message to EOPA, and to every other organization that depends on public funds that City Council administers.



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