Count on Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku and Mayor Darwin Hindman to stamp out a spark in the forest before it catches fire.
Confronted with the ugly truth of block grant substitution -- the substitution of federal funds for city funds on basic infrastructure projects in low income neighborhoods -- the Mayor and Mr. Janku got busy kind of giving in but mostly saying no to First Ward councilman Paul Sturtz, who questioned the practice at the last city council meeting.
Janku even mis-spoke in his defense of the practice, saying the use of CDBG money for these projects allows the city to make infrastructure improvements in the central city quickly and without charging residents on their tax bills.
That, in fact, isn't true at all. Use of CDBG money is frequently accompanied by onerous tax bills. Two years ago, I wrote councilman Janku a letter about that very practice when he vociferously defended a tax bill rebate to citizens of Sunset Lane in his district, while defending tax bills on a CDBG funded street improvement project on N. 6th in the First Ward.
Mayor Hindman then played the dreaded hidden consequences card that works every time on council newbies like Sturtz:
Mayor Darwin Hindman said if a street project in the First Ward isn’t guaranteed using CDBG funds, it will have to compete for funding with other projects around the city. "I, frankly, have no skin in this game, but I just wanted to point out some of the unexpected consequences of what you’re suggesting," Hindman said.
KILLING THEM SOFTLY with Block Grants
From the Columbia Tribune:
Community Development Block Grants, or CDBGs, are federal funds given annually to communities to try to improve low or moderate income neighborhoods. The funds can only be spent in a CDBG-eligible area, which in Columbia is mostly in the center of the city.
Sturtz, who was not on the council when it set the percentages, questioned why such a large portion of CDBG funds are used for infrastructure projects rather than social programs, such as those that help people afford housing or find a job.
Sturtz said he thought more infrastructure improvements in the First Ward should be funded as they are in the rest of the city - through the city’s capital budget - instead of relying on CDBG money.
Pat Kelley, vice president of the Ridgeway Neighborhood Association and a member of the Community Development Commission, which makes recommendations for CDBG money, said she agrees that the percentages confine what is done with the money.
"It’s not that streets are bad or they’re not needed improvements in the neighborhood," Kelley said. "We just wonder if other money could be used for some of these things, so we can use CDBG money for things that aren’t going to happen otherwise. It’s not just a substitute so the money can go out to more privileged parts of town and this will fill the infrastructure need for the CDBG-eligible area. It’s to really do an enhancement that wouldn’t happen without them."