Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Rethinking CDBG

One of the better stories to emerge in the past few months, but one which hasn't received much publicity across the state, is the community redevelopment project that's been launched in Washington. The city recently received $1 million in Community Development Block Grant and Community HOME funds to work to implement a comprehensive, multi-action program to renovate targeted areas in the community.

I'll try to boil down the confusing different pockets of money and different stipulations of how to use said funding into a rather simplistic answer. Basically, Wilkes County doesn't meet the population requirements to receive continual CDBG funding as larger cities do, it had to apply directly to the Department of Community Affairs for funding (Athens-Clarke County, for instance, receives regular funding that the local government can allocate to eligible agencies). As a result, Washington was able to receive a substantially larger chunk of funding based on the structure of the program and the nature of its proposal.

(Again, there's a whole lot more there, but I'm trying to explain it neatly.)

The $1 million will go to renovate a blighted area near downtown Washington, and it will include substantial infrastructure upgrades, beautification efforts, temporary relocation and housing for all affected individuals and numerous other projects. The end attempt to renovate and revitalize the area, thus spurring economic growth that can have a positive benefit on the community as a whole.

I mention this not only because I think it's a great project, but it underlines the impact that large sums of funding can have on efforts like this. While I don't disagree with the current system of allocating funds that Athens-Clarke County employs (where eligible agencies receive anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 per year for three years), I do think there is a flaw in the system.

More often than not, such pockets of funding get rolled into operating costs for many non-profit organizations. Seeing how non-profits rely exclusively on the generosity of others to make ends meet, during difficult economic times or increased competition for funding, any gifts received are applied to keep the lights on and doors open. Rarely are such funds used in a creative way that can generate a meaningful end to a common goal.

I understand why such a system exists, and it's largely because of the generosity of our community. We have tons of non-profit organizations, and we want to help as many out as we possibly can (believe me ... I just wrapped up allocating money for our church's missions budget, and we wanted to give $200 here and $250 there to help as many people as we could). The problem, though, is that those gifts often don't produce the needed change we need.

And that's why the Washington model - though operating under a different framework - makes more and more sense to me. If CDBG money is tight, as it's been in recent years, why not give $50,000 or so to five organizations rather than give $10,000 to 15 organizations? From my experiences, I know that $50,000 would be a huge benefit to any non-profit.

You could set up guidelines that enable 10 percent of the grant to be used for operating costs, but the balance must be dedicated to a specific project that accomplishes a goal for your organization. And, rather than receive money for three years, you get it for one year, take one or two years off, and then reapply.

Given that we went through a very stressful debate over the funding to East Athens Development Corporation and the Hancock Corridor Development Corporation, this may not be the right time to begin such a debate. Then again, who knows ... maybe it is.

Hopefully, it's food for thought.


Blogger Brian said...

This is one of the points I have been making about both CDBG and DCA funds that some have said should be cut from federal and state budgets. We should allocate them in larger amounts to smaller needy communities around the state where they are likely to make a much larger impact rather than getting lost in black holes like Fulton, DeKalb, and in some cases Athens-Clarke. DCA funds in particular could have a dramatic impact in small Georgia municipalities that have budgets of less than $500,000 per year but still have significant infrastructure needs.

6:04 PM  
Blogger paveplanet said...

There are black holes with every grant that the federal and state government doles out. Small governments are just as capable of mismanagement of these funds as the larger ones.

How about citing specific examples of where how such black holes exist in Athens?

8:40 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Pave: You can start with the two non-profits (East Athens Development Corp. and Hancock Corridor Development Corp) in Athens that lost the funds last spring.

I think that horse was flogged to death, but you can review the discussion here if you are unfamiliar: There are also numerous examples of DCA and federal funds disappearing or being wasted in DeKalb, Fulton, etc.

My point is that when there are smaller pools of money going to a communities where they are more likely to make an immediate impact, the results tend to be more obvious. There is less long-term overhead, actions are more easily measured, success quantified, and the effort is less complex, hence less likely to result in waste.

1:59 PM  

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