Each year, the City of Binghamton receives approximately $2 million from HUD through the Community Development Block Grant program, consistently ranked by Republican and Democratic mayors across the country as one of the most important funding sources to support investments in distressed neighborhoods, local housing needs, and nonprofits delivering essential services to our most vulnerable populations.
Binghamton is one of approximately 1,200 cities that receive direct CDBG awards from HUD, and the program allows local leaders a great deal of flexibility in how to invest these dollars in line with the program’s three primary objectives: (1) benefit low-to-moderate income individuals; (2) blight prevention and elimination; and (3) meet an urgent need that poses serious and immediate threat to the health and safety of residents.
In Binghamton, there has been little change over the years in how CDBG dollars are used. Some of the primary activities that are funded year-over-year include:
- Demolition of blighted properties
- Grants to first-time homebuyers
- Emergency housing repairs for senior homeowners
- Code enforcement (half of the department’s total annual budget is funded by CDBG)
- Repairs to streets and parks in CDBG-eligible neighborhoods (about half of city is eligible, which is based on income levels of residents within each census tract)
- Grants to support human service programs that assist seniors, at-risk youth, domestic violence victims, homeless teens, those struggling with addiction, and other vulnerable groups
These are, in many ways, essential services and investments that the local taxpayer would have to fund in order to provide critical investments to distressed neighborhoods and the people who live there. If the program were to be eliminated–and incredibly, the Trump administration has proposed doing that two budget cycles in a row now–the City of Binghamton would have to raise local taxes about 7% to annually cover these services and investments.
And while HUD requires communities who receive direct CDBG grants to actively seek community input during the budget process, the City of Binghamton hardly ever receives citizen interest and feedback on how to spend these flexible federal dollars.
I don’t suspect that will change soon, but for those who may be interested, there is a final public hearing on the City’s proposed CDBG budget for the 2020 calendar year. The hearing is scheduled for Monday, May 6, at 6:30pm in the City Council Chambers. I’d link to a press release or a page on the City’s website announcing the public hearing, but none exists.
And while the draft plan and budget can be found here (see “DRAFT Annual Action Plan – FY45, 2019-2020”), it’s not user-friendly at all and hard to understand.
For convenience of Bridge readers, I pulled together a summary of the proposed CDBG budget:
45th Year CDBG Formula Estimated Allocation: $1,918,702.43
CDBG Administration $146,000
Planning and Design $86,115
Housing Services $167,000
Code Enforcement $250,000
Economic Development $163,000
Street Improvements $174,000
Parks Improvements $118,000
Traffic Safety Improvements $10,000
Capital Improvements $40,000
Binghamton Homeownership Academy $16,000
Home Purchase Assistance $160,000
Senior Housing Small Repairs $85,000
Fair Housing Education $6,000
Human Services $188,350
Youth Programming $10,000
Opioid Addiction Recovery $45,000
Non-Profit Facility Capital Improvements $55,000
Homeless Facility Improvements $30,000
Police Overtime $10,000
Park Rangers $29,237
Security Cameras $30,000
Below, I offer some of my own thoughts on the proposed budget, but first I need to comment briefly on Washington’s shameful and reckless spending decisions.
THE SHAME OF WASHINGTON: LOAVES AND LOAVES TO WAR, and CRUMBS FOR OUR NEIGHBORHOODS
Increasing funding for the CDBG program is consistently a top-five legislative priority for the US Conference of Mayors, a national bipartisan coalition of mayors from red and blue communities. After all, mayors know best how this program plays a vital role in meeting the needs of those less fortunate and supporting investment strategies in distressed neighborhoods. And with housing affordability, pervasive blight, and systemic poverty common features across so many communities–from coal mining towns in West Virginia and rust belt cities across the northeast to communities in the Black Belt and Appalachian region–it would seem only logical and moral to boost CDBG funding, a block grant program that gives local decision-makers control and discretion over how best to meet the needs of their neighborhoods and people.
Unfortunately, the CDBG program has been slashed and burned over the years. For the last couple of years, the program has been funded at just $3 billion a year.
To put this in perspective, we spent approximately $8 billion a MONTH for 100 consecutive months to fund the illegal, tragic war in Iraq.
Eight billion a month for 100 months straight.
Moreover, the federal government used to fund this program at much higher rates compared to today. As the graph below depicts, when adjusted to 2016 dollars, Washington committed $15 billion to CDBG in 1979 at the high-water mark of the program’s history.
Imagine if $15 billion (just under what we spent every two months on the Iraq War) was committed to the CDBG program. More than 1,200 communities would receive a massive infusion of resources to improve distressed neighborhoods, address housing needs, and adequately meet the needs of those most vulnerable in our communities.
For Binghamton, that would mean we could be discussing how to invest not just $2 million, but $10 million. Consider:
- Want an aggressive demolition campaign? Sure, but how about an aggressive demo-and-replace campaign? A $3 million commitment over five years could significantly improve the city’s housing stock, finally moving us closer to the goal of safe, decent, affordable housing for all.
- How about instead of more cops, we invest $1 million a year in a summer youth jobs guarantee. We could put 500 youth to work each summer ($10/hr x 30 hrs x 6 weeks) on projects that improved neighborhood security and livability (installing murals, growing food, cleaning parks, assisting seniors, learning skills, engaging residents, etc).
- All those water and sewer improvements we’re funding with local tax dollars by borrowing from banks? We could literally stop borrowing for the next five years, instead invest $2 million a year in CDBG funds, and improve all water/sewer infrastructure assets within half of the city (the CDBG-eligible tracts), which would also dramatically lower our debt and likely decrease local taxes.
- Rebuild our mental health services delivery system, with a focus on harm reduction and care, with innovation grants totaling $2 million annually
- And so much more….
I don’t think there’d be one Republican or Democratic Mayor who would “reject” increasing CDBG funding five-fold. And for those who say increasing the program from $3 billion to $15 billion is fiscally reckless, remember that Democrats and Republicans joined together to increase military spending in the 2019 budget to $719 billion, which is an $82 billion increase from the prior year and more than President Trump and the Pentagon requested.
And this comes on the heels of the first ever audit of the Pentagon, which failed miserably (“Pentagon can’t account for $125 billion over a five year period”). The award-winning investigative journalist Matt Taibbi from Rolling Stone has a great “intro” article for those who want to put our defense spending in context of our paltry, almost pathetic $3 billion for CDBG.
MY THOUGHTS ON THE CITY’S BUDGET
Since both Washington Democrats and Republicans are complicit in shoveling cash into the belly of the Pentagon, it’s unlikely that, without a political revolution, the CDBG program will see any sudden spike in funding. So, it’s important to look at every dollar spent locally, and ask if it’s strategic and meeting the program’s objectives.
Here are a few changes I will share with the City via writing, since I will not be in town for the May 6 public hearing (feel free to borrow any of these if you plan to show up or submit written comments):
- Eliminate funding for police overtime and surveillance cameras. According to the City’s own budgets, the police department budget has increased by approximately 20% over the last five years. If the administration wants $40,000 more for police overtime and cameras, then find a way to include it in the $12 million dollar budget for the Police Department–or make the case to local taxpayers why this is critical to fund. A federal grant that is meant to support disinvested neighborhoods and poor people should not be used to expand police patrols and surveillance powers. Period.
- Eliminate funding for the city employees in the Binghamton Economic Development Office (BEDO). I have nothing against the staff at BEDO, and I understand they administer loan funds that, over decades, have been capitalized by CDBG funds. But over the last two years, Mayor David and the GOP-led City Council have decided to give $320,000 in CDBG funds to cover the salaries and benefits of BEDO staff. And for what in return that met CDBG eligibility? The issuance of eight loans to small businesses–five of which were for $5,000 or less. In other words, the City paid BEDO an administrative fee of $40,000 for every loan the BEDO staff made to small businesses over the last two years. That’s absurd. BEDO staff are committing fewer and fewer hours on CDBG-funded loans (and not issuing many at all), and a federal grant that is meant to improve distressed neighborhoods and support poor people should not be footing half the personnel bill of Mayor David’s Economic Development team. A reasonable solution would be to agree to pay BEDO a flat fee for every loan successfully negotiated, or a percentage of the total loan amount. In other words, make sure the CDBG payment to BEDO is funding eligible CDBG activities.
- Eliminate Mayor David’s Slush Funds. Mayor David has a habit of creating “generic lines” in the CDBG budget to serve as a slush fund that he can use throughout the year for political purposes. He’s done this for the last couple of years, and his GOP-rubber stamping Council has allowed him to allocate these slush funds however he sees fit when the “political moment” arrives. Look, I’ll be honest: I agree with the underlying premise. That it’s nice to have a small pot of funds to support needs that emerge throughout the year. In fact, when I worked for the City, I proposed reserving a small earmark of CDBG funds for this purpose. But I also proposed a process that was consistent with the CDBG program guidelines: transparent, accountable, and community-driven. I developed a two-page application, named a review committee involving citizens, council, and city staff, and promised a response within 30 days. If Mayor David and his team can’t commit to a similar process for the slush funds in this budget (Capital Improvements; Non-profit Capital Improvements; Homeless Facility Improvements; and Youth Programming), then all of these lines should be eliminated.
The CDBG program is perhaps the most impactful federal funding when it comes to addressing the health and livability of Binghamton’s neighborhoods. Unfortunately, it is also either largely misunderstood or completely unknown. I hope this has shed some light on the program, but please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this grant and the process.
Stay informed and engaged, friends.