With Congress poised to work on budget, Alle-Kiski Valley leaders worry about Trump plan to eliminate block grants
After years of cutbacks, a federal program that communities rely on to complete projects they otherwise could not afford might disappear entirely.
President Trump’s 2018 budget proposal calls for eliminating the $3.3 billion Community Development Block Grant program, commonly known by its acronym, CDBG.
The budget plan says that while the federal government has spent more than $150 billion on the program since its inception in 1974, it has not demonstrated results. It was last reauthorized in 1994.
The budget says the program “is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated a measurable impact on communities.”
Less funding, combined with more communities qualifying for grants, has reduced the amount of individual grants, making the program “less impactful,” the budget states.
“The budget recognizes that state and local governments are better positioned to address local community and economic development needs,” it reads.
In 2016 and 2017, at least 19 municipalities in the Alle-Kiski Valley received CDBG money in some form.
For many local governments, it’s the only direct federal funding that they get, Cheswick borough secretary Andy Bock said.
If the program is eliminated, places like Lower Burrell — which have used the grant money to pay for low-profile but necessary and often expensive projects such as waterline and sewer work, demolishing blighted properties and making facilities handicapped-accessible — would have to save money over several years, City Clerk Kelly Cook said.
“All municipalities have the same burden,” Cook said. “There are so many unfunded projects that are made mandatory by the state and federal government.”
Cheswick has received 33 block grants since 1991, most of them for waterline work, Bock said.
“It’ll hurt poorer and older communities that need a lot of infrastructure replaced, unless they have something to replace it,” Bock said, referring to possible elimination of the grants.
The last grant Tarentum received, about $20,000 in 2016, paid for a water valve isolation project, Borough Manager Mike Gutonski said.
The work made it possible to reduce the number of homes affected by a waterline break — instead of shutting off water to three or four blocks, only half a block would lose water.
“It makes bigger projects we are not normally able to do possible,” Gutonski said.
The pool of federal money available for the CDBG program has fallen precipitously.
A little over 10 years ago, it was about $5 billion; now it is around $3 billion — a 40 percent decrease, said Tom Benecki, executive director of the Allegheny Valley North Council of Governments.
In Allegheny County, municipalities generally apply to get grants through their respective councils of government.
From 2007 to 2017, the CDBG money given to Allegheny County and Pittsburgh decreased by about 25 percent; in Westmoreland County, it fell by about 31 percent.
“There are fewer grantees and some reduction in grant sizes,” Benecki said.
Benecki said that those giving out the grants prefer to help as many municipalities as possible, even if less money is being given out.
Over the last five years, the size of cuts to the CDBG program overall and its allocations have decreased.
From 2012 to 2017, Allegheny County only saw an overall decrease in funding of 0.7 percent, and in Pittsburgh, 2.1 percent.
But Westmoreland County saw a decrease of 9.8 percent.
The types of projects that CDBG money can be used for also have been restricted.
In past years, communities have used the funding to pay for road work. Vandergrift wanted $400,000 this year to repave 14 streets but didn’t get it.
“We do rely on that grant along with everyone else,” borough secretary Stephen DelleDonne said. “Without that money, a lot of street reconstruction would not be done.”
Benecki said the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has moved away from granting CDBG money to pay for regular road work.
“Roads are like black holes that suck in money,” Benecki said.
Despite years of cuts, Trump’s budget is the first to make attempts to do away with the program entirely, Benecki said.
Program broadly supported
Benecki said that CDBG was somewhat unique because it enjoyed largely bipartisan support from its inception in the 1974 Housing and Community Development Act under President Gerald Ford.
CDBG saved money, while being smaller and more flexible than the seven other federal programs it replaced.
“Democrats liked it because it was income-tested; Republicans liked it because it was a block grant,” Benecki said.
However, there is some doubt whether the program will be cut entirely.
“I could not see it being discontinued,” said Janet Thomas, deputy director of Westmoreland County’s Department of Community Development. “There is so much of a need.”
At a roundtable in Armstrong County last month, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said cutting the program is a bad idea.
His press secretary, Jacklin Rhoads, said Casey wants to keep the program at its current funding level of $3.3 billion; while Trump proposes elimination, the Senate would cut it to $3 billion, and the House to $2.9 billion. Both chambers of Congress are controlled by Republicans.
Casey said he would like to continue to see the program be used in municipalities to create jobs, manage blight and combat the opioid crisis. He said Congress can keep the program from being eliminated.
“I think we can stop him (Trump) from doing that, but the program won’t be all that good if we stop elimination but don’t fund it very well,” Casey said.
Benecki said he is concerned that even if the CDBG program survives, further cuts to it could be fatal.
“A level critical mass in funding is needed to make a difference in municipal governments,” Benecki said.
Leif Greiss is a Tribune-Review staff writer.