A troubled social service agency with a history of controversy has emerged as the unlikely winner in a proposal before Toledo City Council today aimed at resolving a dispute over the distribution of federal funds.
Until now, debate over allocation of $6.8 million in Community Development Block Grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has focused almost exclusively on restoring thousands of dollars to four homeless shelters that were excluded from initial funding recommendations, sparking a huge outcry.
While the latest proposal offers some relief to the homeless shelters, the biggest winner is the Economic Opportunity Planning Association of Greater Toledo, a politically connected anti-poverty agency that has lobbied city officials hard the past few weeks to obtain additional block-grant dollars.
The planning association's emergency home-repair program had been recommended for a massive cut in funding by Department of Neighborhoods officials and an independent citizen review body. The reviewers cited concerns about high salaries for project officials and missing documentation in the agency's application.
Initially, the home-repairs program stood to lose nearly half of its $375,000 annual funding, reducing that budget to $200,000 a year.
Under the latest plan, however, the agency would get an extra $70,000 through a roundabout shuffling of dollars from the city's general fund, boosting its funding to $270,000.
"A lot has to do with political patronage," said Councilman Adam Martinez, who helped draft the latest proposal with Councilman Paula Hicks-Hudson and the Bell administration. "There's always been advocates for EOPA and I expect there will continue to be."
Still, Mr. Martinez said the new proposal is the best hope to achieve a compromise to move the issue through council, which will meet at 4 p.m. today in One Government Center.
The new proposal is based on an original ordinance from the mayor's office that council objected to last week. That proposal, which increased the agency's funding by $50,000 and gave the shelters $162,500 by tapping into the city's capital improvement's fund, followed seven other proposals council rejected.
Under the newest legislation, funding for the four shelters is scaled back to $145,000, while the planning association's allocation grows by $70,000. That has riled some council members, along with Department of Neighborhoods officials and shelters, who point to the agency's poor scores during the review process.
"It is clear that they have a political influence," said Councilman D. Michael Collins, who believes the funds should be distributed according to the original recommendations. "As stewards of this HUD funding, council has a responsibility to set politics aside and distribute these funds strictly on the basis of sound performance and value-added outcomes."
James Powell, chief executive officer of the Economic Opportunity Planning Association, acknowledged that his agency has been talking to council members about the importance of the home-repair program.
"We've talked to everybody that will listen," he said. "As has everybody else."
The agency's representatives also met with Mayor Mike Bell and other high-level officials last week to discuss their allocation.
Department of Neighborhoods Director Lourdes Santiago said the meeting with the mayor had no influence on the legislation, which she said simply aims to find a compromise with council.
Among councilmen, Steven Steel and Ms. Hicks-Hudson have voiced support to increase the agency's allocation. Neither could be reached for comment Monday.
At a council hearing last month on the block grants and other federal funds, Mr. Steel spoke at length about the importance of the agency's program and said it shouldn't sustain such a large cut. "I just don't understand how that's justified in the least," he said about the proposed allocation.He said he planned to add an amendment to legislation proposed by Ms. Hicks-Hudson that would largely restore the agency's allocation to what it received last year.
The agency has friends in high places politically. Former Toledo Mayors Carty Finkbeiner and Jack Ford have strongly and publicly advocated that the planning association be allowed to continue running Head Start.
Past agency board members include Norman Bell, father of Mayor Bell, Ruth Ashford, wife of state Rep. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo), and state Sen. Edna R. Brown (D., Toledo.).
The agency has been at the center of several recent controversies.
Its largest program is Head Start. It was notified by the federal government in December it must compete with other agencies if it wants to keep receiving nearly $13 million annually to run the program for 3 to 5-year-olds from low-income families. The move set off a political fire storm, with several other organizations planning to apply for the grant and the agency defending its record.
In March, The Blade reported an internal investigation at the planning association revealed federal money was spent to mow lots that did not exist and on community gardens that were never developed. The agency also hired a convicted felon to work with senior citizens.
Agency officials called the report one-sided and said they took appropriate action to deal with its findings.
In May, The Blade filed a lawsuit against the agency. During a discussion of the agency's Head Start grant application, board members entered into an illegal executive session. The agency and the newspaper reached an agreement shortly afterward; EOPA agreed to comply with Ohio's Sunshine Law and provide notice of the agreement to all board members and officers.
Mr. Powell defended the agency Monday.
He said if the agency receives more money than the citizen review committee originally recommended, that is a testimony to the program's record rather than lobbying efforts. "I think it's a performance issue," he said.
Meanwhile, the homeless shelters that face cuts in block grant funds desperately wait for their allocations.
Renee Palacios, executive director of the shelter Family House, said she can't understand why the planning association is receiving more money than her agency, but at this point she just wants some resolution, even if it isn't perfect.
Under the current scenario, her organization would receive $64,166 in block grant money, a 12 percent cut from last year.
"At the end of the day we need to have a decision, we need to have a vote," Ms. Palacios said. "At this point, whether it's the pear tree or the apple tree, we need funding. We are dying here without a budget."
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6272.
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