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Board of Aldermen approves bill divvying up block grant money

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - More than a week after an aldermanic committee made funding changes, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen gave initial approval to legislation divvying up $16.7 million in federal block grants. The measure passed 17 to 8, with one abstention.

But it wasn't an entirely smooth ride. When the full board took up the bill, sponsored by Alderman Fred Wessels, D-13th Ward, some aldermen tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to make more changes.

Several aldermen – including Alderman Scott Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, and Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward -- proposed amendments to restore funding to the Hi-Pointe Center food bank and Washington University’s the Spot for HIV/AIDs testing. Those two programs were cut during committee hearings. 

Ogilvie said that block grant funding was necessary for the southwest St. Louis-based Hi-Pointe Center to remain open. Many poor seniors and disabled people, he said, rely on the center for food.

Ogilvie added that the Hi-Pointe Center received higher scores from the the Community Development Administration than community education centers or the Park Central Development agency.

“This resource for the low-income seniors and disabled will be gone,” said Ogilvie, prediciting what would happen if the Hi-Pointe Center didn't get block grant funding.

Ogilvie's and Cohn's amendments failed. 

Wessels then put forward an amendment to eliminate roughly $180,000 worth of funding for community education centers. That money would have gone to the Hi-Pointe Center, the Spot, the DeSales Community Housing Corporation and nutritional services for people with HIV/AIDS or cancer.

But that amendment, too, faltered. Alderman Craig Schmid, D-20th Ward, said cutting community education programs would send a “terrible message.” And Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, said that the program was one of the few programs spread out to all regions of the city.

“I understand that in any budgeting situation, it becomes a balancing act between priorities. There are always some losers,” French said. “But today I don’t think we should make a massive cut to a program that affects children in our community.”

The full board will need to pass the distribution legislation next week before sending it off to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.

That debate over block grants may have been more vigorous because this year the money is being distributed in a different way.

Prompted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, St. Louis changed how it allocated community development block grants – also known as CDBGs. The program gives local governments money to help with youth employment, services for senior citizens and building rehabilitation. It also funds community development organizations to improve housing quality, neighborhood beautification and community activities.

Instead of being divided up by ward, the block grant funds were distributed through a points-based bidding process administered by the CDA. This year, St. Louis is applying for about $16.7 million in block grants -- a fraction of what it got in the 1970s during the program's peak. The city is also applying for $2.3 million in HOME Investment Partnership funding for housing to low- and moderate-income residents.

Proponents of the new system point to the possibility of funding bigger projects that go beyond a single ward. They also say that the new system may provide greater confidence for non-profits and corporations to contribute funds to projects. 

But numerous aldermen took issue with the initial distribution of funds, noting that many initiatives – including community development organizations and community education programs – were cut off. And other aldermen have contended that the new system is too aloof and bureaucratic, adding that it doesn't provide enough opportunity for community input.

Last Wednesday, the Board of Aldermen’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee shifted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of funds among various programs.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.