Federal block grants get unexpected boost

Overall funding up $88,495

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    Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, left, and council president Paula Hicks-Hudson.

    The Blade/Jetta Fraser
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  • Mayor Mike Bell says the higher funding is a sign the city is regaining federal trust.
    Mayor Mike Bell says the higher funding is a sign the city is regaining federal trust.

    To the surprise of city leaders, Toledo’s Community Development Block Grant allocation for 2013 is higher than last year.

    But at the same time, the city will be getting less money specifically designated for homeless-shelter operations, which set off another panic among shelter operators, who were already bracing for cuts this year.

    Toledo Mayor Mike Bell said on Thursday that the city would get $7,008,850 in CDBG funding — an increase from the $6,839,464 received in 2012.

    The city will get $498,959 in federal Emergency Solutions Grant money — down from $579,850 last year.

    Mr. Bell said the news was good because it means a net increase of $88,495, which could be directed to homeless shelters that were going to get less money than last year, according to the city’s plan sent to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

    “We were anticipating that it would be about $6.8 million. ... This is really, really good news for us,” the mayor said.

    But people like Renee Palacios, executive director of Family House, a shelter in central Toledo, said the news was not altogether great because Emergency Solutions Grant funding is down.

    Emergency Solutions Grant money can be used to fund shelter operations.

    Although CDBG money is up, it is used increasingly for “rapid rehousing” of homeless people — not the day-to-day operation of a shelter.

    “Since ESG is down, that means we will lose more money. The pattern the city of Toledo has been that we will miss out on CDBG, and since ESG is down, we are in serious trouble,” Ms. Palacios said. “There are 36 families living at Family House right now and the city needs to consider them because rapid rehousing, as great as it is, people have to start somewhere and they start in shelters.”

    The news is the latest development in the long-running debate over how the city should allocate the federal money.

    Lourdes Santiago, Toledo Neighborhoods Department director, said she expected a 5 percent drop in Emergency Solutions Grant funding over 2012, but this decrease is worse.

    “The fact that they decreased ESG is significant and hopefully sends a message to [Toledo City] Council that they need to look at activities and not merely funding organizations,” Ms. Santiago said.

    “HUD does not approve of us throwing money to organizations but rather allocating funding to activities that need to be carried out in our community.”

    Mayor Bell said he would devise a plan with council to use the extra CDBG money and help fund the needs of the shelters.

    Before getting the formal allocation that came Wednesday evening from HUD, the city had to estimate the CDBG, ESG, and HOME funds — money used for affordable housing — it would receive in order to submit planning documents to show how the money will be spent.

    For the second year in a row, proposed decreases to homeless shelters by the Bell administration and Toledo Lucas County Homelessness Board set off an avalanche of complaints from shelter operators.

    Councilmen this year decried being cut out of the planning process, stating they should have been able to review and revise the plan if necessary.

    Mayor Bell said all 12 councilmen were invited to attend and observe the process, including more than 16 meetings and forums held over five months across the city.

    Earlier this month, Mayor Bell cut council out of the final piece of the decision-making process on allocating the CDBG and ESG funding. Instead of waiting for a council vote of approval or allowing revisions, he sent the city’s “one-year action” plan to HUD.

    Council subsequently passed its own plan, which restored CDBG funding to shelters — Aurora House, 1035 N. Superior St.; LaPosada, 435 Eastern Ave.; St. Paul’s Community Center, 230 13th St., and Family House, 669 Indiana Ave. — and also for a low-income senior housing project in North Toledo.

    Mayor Bell used a line-item veto on May 22 to wipe away those changes. Last week he said he would ask council to approve taking $100,800 out of the city’s general fund to help bail out those shelters by setting their funding at 2012 levels.

    That seemed to satisfy the shelters and some on council, although Councilman D. Michael Collins objected to using general fund money for the shelters. Instead he said the city should use federal money to make the shelters whole.

    Under the recommendations sent to HUD, St. Paul’s Community Center will get $20,500 in block-grant money, or about half of what it previously got. Family Outreach Community United Services Inc., 283 Ashland Ave., will get $77,282, and Harbor House, a shelter for homeless and chemically dependent women at 3322 Cherry St., will get $14,700.

    Mr. Bell said the city no longer needs to use that $108,000 from the general fund for the shelters.

    Councilman Adam Martinez, chairman of council’s neighborhoods committee, said the CDBG increase was good news.

    “That will go a long way, and I think it is definitely needed and should be put to use to help our most vulnerable agencies,” Mr. Martinez said. “This may call for a substantial amendment to the one-year action plan, which would alleviate some of the policy issues.”

    The mayor said the increase in CDBG money is an indication that the federal government again has faith in the city’s neighborhoods department, which was mired in a scandal during 2011 and 2012 that resulted in two top officials being fired: Kattie Bond, former department of neighborhoods director, and Mike Badik, former housing commissioner.

    The firings occurred two days after a story in The Blade described how a local contractor with a long criminal history, Gregory M. Harris, continued to receive work on city-administered home-rehab projects even after his daughter, the vice president of her father’s company, was arrested at one of the projects with 55 pounds of marijuana in the bed of her company truck.

    The firings were one part of an ongoing internal investigation of the department that was prompted by previous stories by The Blade that detailed allegations of bid rigging, favoritism, and poor supervision in the department, which spends millions in federal housing money each year.

    The FBI and HUD also investigated the department.

    “Our department of neighborhoods a few years ago was broke — it was broke, and what I mean is that we had some repairs that we had to be able to do internally to be able to fix it,” Mayor Bell said. “We had to re-establish solid credibility with the federal government.”

    Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com or 419-724-6171.