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Senators Question Cuts to Community Development Block Grant Funds

July 5, 2007 — Concerns about the operation of the territory's community development block grant (CDBG) program were at the forefront of discussions during Thursday's Committee of the Whole hearing, as senators questioned why approximately $200,000 has been cut from this year's CDBG grant award.
Administered on the local level by the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, the program is supervised nationally by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which also distributes CDBG funds to the states and territories. While last year's grant award totaled some $1.9 million, the 2007 grant has been whittled down to about $1.7 million.
DPNR representatives shed little light on the subject Thursday, saying HUD has not yet provided a definitive reason for the cut. However, DPNR Assistant Commissioner Alicia Barnes said the decrease could have something to do with a few administrative problems that recently turned up on the local level.
Still, at recent Senate hearings, other local organizations, such as the Law Enforcement Planning Commission, have testified that cuts in federal funding have been felt across the board, with funds getting redirected to U.S. war efforts in the Middle East. In a recent letter sent to Gov. John deJongh Jr., HUD representatives did not cite a reason for the decrease in funds, but rather laid out some new requirements for CDBG fund recipients.
According to the letter, HUD is now asking that community organizations and agencies receiving CDBG funds submit performance reports, showing how and when the money is spent. Senators placed similar demands on DPNR representatives, saying that CDBG funds have been allowed to stagnate over the years, with many projects and programs not proceeding according to plan.
While delays in spending CDBG funds have been attributed to a variety of factors — such as rising construction costs or the inability to obtain design plans and specifications — DPNR representatives have conceded that the territory has historically had difficulties in spending the money in a timely manner.
That's about to change, Barnes told senators, explaining that DPNR is in the midst of revamping the process by which it monitors grant recipients, and the progress they are making in spending the CDBG funds.
Other obstacles, such as a lack of employees, also have to be fixed, added Bernadette Richards, CDBG's program director. Program administrators make decisions to stop funding certain organizations and projects on a continuous basis, she said.
"There are some grantees that we just continue to give money to year after year, so it seems that they are sustaining themselves on CDBG funding alone,” Richards said. “I don't think the money was intended for that. The funds are supposed to be used to empower communities, empower organizations, so that they can be self-sufficient."
DPNR is just meeting the "minimum requirements" set up by HUD for the administration of the CDBG program, Barnes added..
"The program pretty much satisfies the HUD guidelines," she said. "Can we do a better job of using the funds, though? Yes, we can."
While senators continued to pepper the DPNR representatives with questions, many had little to say to residents who showed up to the hearing ready to justify their proposed CDBG appropriation.
According to a proposal submitted by the governor, 13 programs, projects and organizations are slated to receive CDBG funding in the St. Thomas-St. John district, while 14 are up for funding on St. Croix.
While some of the projects are new, a portion of the money will be used to refund past projects that have already been approved. In those instances, officials recently came up with new plans for distributing the CDBG funds in an effort to spend a certain amount of block-grant money by the end of August. (See “Senate Wrestles with Community Development Block Grant Issues.”)
Another $358,501 will go to DPNR's Division of Capital and Planning for the administration of the CDBG program and other administrative expenses.
Though senators did not approve any of the funding Thursday evening, they will meet later to vote on the 2007 CDBG proposal.
A similar Committee of the Whole hearing will take place at 5 p.m. Friday on St. Croix.
Projects proposed for this year's grant award from the St. Thomas-St. John district are:
St. John
— Episcopal Diocese of the Virgin Islands: $14,485 will be used to operate a computer-training program at St. Ursula Church;
— V.I. Resource Center for the Disabled: $8,000 will be used to operate an after-school program for the disabled at Julius Sprauve School in Cruz Bay; and
— Love City Pan Dragons Steel Orchestra: $10,966 will be used to operate an after-school and steel pan-instruction program.
St. Thomas
— Wesley Methodist Church: $15,000 will be used to operate an after-school program for youth on the eastern end of the island. (This is the third year the program will be funded through the CDBG program.);
— Brighter Writers Summer Club: $10,000 will be used to operate a summer camp that provides writing instruction, reading, arts and crafts, typing and computer training to low-to-moderate income youth. (This is the second year the program will be funded through the CDBG program.);
— V.I. Resource Center for the Disabled: $15,000 will be used to operate an after-school program for the disabled. This is the ninth year the program will be funded through the CDBG program);
— Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation: $10,000 will be used for the operation of a summer swimming program for low-to-moderate income youth. (This is the sixth year the program will be funded through the CDBG program.);
— University of the Virgin Islands: $12,455 will be used for operation of the Upward Bound after-school literacy and resource program;
— St. Andrew's Seek and Serve: $15,000 will be used to operate an after-school program from St. Andrew's Church in Sugar Estate;
— V.I. Missions: $15,000 will be used to operate a computer-training program for low-income youth;
— We from Upstreet: $15,000 will be used to operate an after-school program from J. Antonio Jarvis Elementary School;
— Department of Public Works: $136,122 will be refunded to the department to perform site improvements throughout Estate Bovoni and along the adjacent roadway; and
— Long Path/Garden Street Association: $433,507 will be refunded to the association for the construction of a community center and playground for youth in the community. (This project was initially approved in 2006.)
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