Bell, Santiago argue with council over ‘job’ description in allocating millions in federal funds

Mayor Mike Bell stormed out of the meeting.
Mayor Mike Bell stormed out of the meeting.

A top Toledo official engaged in a near-yelling match Tuesday with councilmen over how to allocate millions of dollars for community development groups and homeless shelters before Mayor Mike Bell tried to quell the rancor, but he eventually stormed out of the meeting.

Lourdes Santiago, director of the city’s neighborhoods department, told council several times during its regular meeting that “its job” was to approve the administration's recommendations on how to allocate $6.8 million in Community Development Block Grant money and $610,343 in Emergency Solutions Grant funds.

The deadline to submit the city’s “one-year action plan” to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is Friday.

Several councilmen erupted at Ms. Santiago — chastising her for essentially telling council it lacked the legislative authority to change the allocations. Councilman Lindsay Webb interrupted Ms. Santiago, warning her not to tell council its job. Councilman Mike Craig interrupted her again when she persisted to tell council its role in the process.

“I cannot believe the arrogance of the director of the department of neighborhoods,” Mr. Craig said during the meeting. “I wouldn’t talk to a guy on the playground the way she just talked to us. We have been left completely out of this.”

Council received the recommendations after a city-run committee reviewed the requests for Community Development Block Grants and another committee operated through the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board reviewed requests from homeless shelters. Several other councilmen said they were left out of the process. Council President Paula Hicks-Hudson said there was “confusion and disarray” because council was “not truly invited.”

Mayor Bell addressed council amid the acrimony, saying councilmen in fact were invited to several meetings via a Jan. 11 memo that listed the dates and locations.

“There were more than a number of times you were made aware of the possibility of coming to a meeting,” Mr. Bell said. “To say the director of neighborhoods did not let you know is inappropriate because you all know better.”

The mayor acknowledged the process has been frustrating because of expected proposed funding cuts to many groups and shelters since federal money is expected to be reduced.

Council already had set a hearing for Thursday to talk about the role of the homelessness board, which is another sore point for some on council. The mayor told council to meet in an “all-day session” Thursday.

“The deadline is Friday,” Mr. Bell said. “You can mess around with this. Let’s make it an all-day session.”

Ms. Hicks-Hudson warned the mayor not to be flippant.

He responded: “I am not being flippant. … Run it any way you want. By Friday, you need to have it done,” and he walked out.

In the past, council has altered the recommendations, such as it did for the now-defunct central-city community development group called Organized Neighbors Yielding Excellence, or ONYX. In 2011, the city’s block grant review committee recommended no funds for ONYX, but city council still awarded the group $90,000.

After Tuesday’s council meeting, councilmen dismissed Ms. Santiago’s comments, confident they do in fact have the ability to allocate the federal money by changing the action plan.

“We do and we have,” Councilman Adam Martinez, chairman of the neighborhoods committee, said immediately after the meeting. “It is not us against them. It’s about the people we serve.”

City Law Director Adam Loukx later Tuesday told The Blade Ms. Santiago was correct and council lacked the authority to make changes.

“The die is already cast,” Mr. Loukx said.

“What council’s role is to say ‘Yes, we accept it,’ and allocate the money,” he said. “I believe that they have very, very limited ability to do that. There has been, and always has been, adjustments under the HUD recommendations. I don’t believe there is any real authority and I don’t want to be as curt as [Ms. Santiago] to say it is not your job, but that is an accurate statement.”

Mr. Loukx declined to say if council acted illegally when it changed the funding for ONYX.

Mr. Martinez later blasted the administration for taking a hard line against council’s authority on how to spend the money.

“There is a long history of this and I would challenge him to show me where in federal law that is,” Mr. Martinez said. “This is absolutely ridiculous and I take great offense to them making that type of statement.”

Mr. Martinez also said the process was flawed and seemingly nontransparent.

The process of deciding how to divvy up the Community Development Block Grant funding includes getting recommendations from a 10-member “Community Review Committee.” That committee was stacked with four city neighborhoods department employees, another Bell administration director, and Ms. Santiago’s domestic partner.

Ms. Santiago initially told The Blade that the committee had five members.

The neighborhoods department also receives a piece of the federal funding for its activities, which include monitoring the third-party agencies such as community development groups.

Shelter operators who have applied for the funding said they will have to cut services if the recommendations are followed.

Renee Palacios, executive director of Family House in Central Toledo, said it will shut down a toddler program and school-age program in the summer because of a potential $79,000 cut.

Beach House, for example, last year received $52,573 in Emergency Solutions money. It requested $94,517 for the 2013-14 allocation but is only recommended to get $47,841 under that category. However, the review committee recommended it get another $50,000 in Emergency Solutions money for rapid rehousing, a program that helps people in need get placed in apartments.

On the CDBG side of the controversy, the community development corporation United North Inc., which late last year proposed turning the former St. Hedwig School in North Toledo’s Polish Village into 41 apartments for low-income seniors, was dismayed to have that project cut out of recommendations for the CDBG allocation.In addition to its meeting Thursday, council could schedule a special meeting to take an official vote.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: or 419-724-6171 or on Twitter @ignaziomessina.