WASHINGTON – The Bush administration’s plan to cut about $2 billion from community and economic development programs in its fiscal 2006 budget is “sad, irresponsible and dishonest,” local officials from Maryland said Tuesday.
The budget, released Monday, would combine 18 separate programs, including the Community Development Block Grant program, into one called the “Strengthening America’s Communities Grant Program.” The administration said the consolidation will streamline the allocation process and funnel money into poor communities.
But critics note that the new program would have a budget of $3.7 billion, down from the $5.7 billion total the 18 programs received this year.
“With a budget ax, he (Bush) is attacking America’s cities,” Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley said.
The consolidated program would include everything from Special Olympics to Indian housing funds, but opponents were particularly concerned that the budget would effectively eliminate the Community Development Block Grant program, which received $4.1 billion this year.
The block grant program gives federal money to state and local officials and gives them some leeway in how they decide to spend it on housing, senior centers, homeless shelters, retail and other public improvements.
Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan pointed to Silver Spring and Wheaton as two communities that have benefited from the block grants, which have also been helped county residents find affordable housing, learn a language and get adequate healthcare.
“This is a fundamental program aimed at helping the working poor,” Duncan said.
Duncan and O’Malley spoke in Washington at a news conference on the budget organized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties.
But the Office of Management and Budget defended the consolidation, saying the current Community Development Block Grant program is ineffective and it duplicates other federal funding programs. The office also said the programs now are susceptible to fraud by local officials who administer the program.
That drew a sarcastic retort from Akron, Ohio, Mayor Don Plusquellic, the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He said that wrongdoers should be prosecuted, but that the whole program should not be eliminated because of a few instances of fraud.
“If they looked at every department in Washington the same way (as the block grant program), we would have eliminated the military,” Plusquellic said.
OMB also said that the block grant program currently funnels money into counties and cities that are already wealthy. But officials at the news conference said that even in the wealthiest communities — like Montgomery County — have “pockets of poverty.”
“We are not spending these dollars in Potomac, we are spending them in Silver Spring, and Wheaton and Langley Park,” Duncan said. “We are putting the money were the need is and we are targeting it directly to those communities, and it is making a difference.”
He and others said they want to work with the administration to “fine-tune” the block grant program, instead of completely overhauling it.
“We stand ready to work with Congress to do whatever fine-tuning is necessary, no program is perfect, but the program has been successful for 30 years and we want to make sure that program continues, ” Duncan said.
-30- CNS 02-08-05