Schenectady County

Schenectady’s streets may trump parks, pools

Streets may take the priority over children’s summer programs this year.

Streets may take the priority over children’s summer programs this year.

City Council members are considering funneling most of their federal Community Development Block Grant into street paving and sidewalk repair rather than enhancing the many summer programs offered by non-profit groups.

The council will vote next Monday after debating the issue one last time at the start of their 7 p.m. meeting at City Hall.

Development Director Richard Purga had recommended that the city give more money to the groups running the city’s parks and pools, while also spending $516,000 of its $2.3 million grant on street paving. That would be an increase of $157,000 over last year — but city administrators asked for $1.2 million.

And the $516,000 would pave sections of only four streets.

“It’s just not enough,” said Councilman Thomas Della Sala. “I just want to see more in public works. That’s how we improve neighborhoods.”

Councilman Carl Erikson quickly agreed. He proposed a sidewalk program in which the city would reimburse property owners for some of the costs of repairing their sidewalks.

“A lot of neighborhoods have sidewalks you can’t roll a stroller on,” he said. “It’s expensive and a lot of people can’t afford to do it.”

But if they were offered a partial reimbursement, possibly for their materials, he said many residents would likely rise to the task.

“I think we’d see a lot of benefit,” he said.

The CDBG fund is closely regulated, with city officials limited in how much they can spend on each type of project. The nonprofits that run city pools and park programs cannot be given more than 15 percent of the total grant, for example.

But public works projects are unlimited; the council could spend as much of the general CDBG grant as it wants.

The question is whether the council is willing to funnel money to public works in the face of urgent pleas for money from other groups.

Erikson said he’ll propose a series of cuts.

“I will compile a list. I have no problem with pulling from other areas,” he said.

Those groups had hoped for more, not less. In the proposed grant budget, most of them had been cut by 20 percent. The final CDBG funds were higher than expected, giving the city about another $96,000 that could be spent on public works or divvied up among nonprofits and city departments.

Other council members were not wedded to the idea of pouring most of CDBG into public works, but they, too, didn’t advocate for spreading the money out equally among the current recipients.

Councilwomen Barbara Blanchard and Denise Brucker both want to put more money into Roots and Wisdom, a group that employs teenagers as farmers to care for gardens in the city’s parks.

The teens care for the plants all summer, selling some vegetables at farmers markets and boxing up the rest for the emergency food pantry.

Both women said they would approve reducing the grants of other groups to give more to Roots and Wisdom.

“It’s a youth job training program as well,” Brucker said. “And they do an amazing job.”

Erikson also said he wanted to get “more bang for the buck” out of the housing section of the CDBG budget.

In recent years, much of that money has been used to rehab dilapidated houses and build the “green” homes — environmentally friendly houses sold to low-income residents for about half their market price.

Under Purga’s plan, Better Neighborhoods Inc. would get $93,000 for housing. That would be enough to help rehab seven houses, BNI Assistant Director Ellie Pepper said.

Erikson suggested that the city instead spread its money to more buildings by picking out the best of the vacant housing in the city and repairing those houses.

The city has about 700 vacant or abandoned houses, according to a report given to the council Monday night.

“There’s probably a lot of houses on the list that with some cleanup, replace a broken window, put a door back on its hinges, could be sold … Not rehabbing a house but getting them back in saleable condition,” Erikson said.

Acting Mayor Gary McCarthy said that was unlikely.

“There’s not a house on the list that needs just a coat of paint,” he said.

Pepper predicted that even the best-looking house would need thousands of dollars of work.

Federal requirements for CDBG funds include lead-paint abatement and bringing the house up to current codes.

And the logistics could be tricky. The city does not yet own many of those houses, although they could be taken through foreclosure or abandonment proceedings, a lengthy process.

Then they would have to be sold to BNI, under the federal rules for CDBG funds. BNI would, in turn, sell them to homeowners after making repairs.

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