Schenectady County

Schenectady looks at allocation of federal community grants

It’s budget time again for Schenectady's Community Development Block Grant, and that means it’s time

It’s budget time again for Schenectady’s Community Development Block Grant, and that means it’s time to keep some agencies — including some city departments — alive by paying their workers’ salaries.

“For some, it’s their lifeblood,” said Director of Development Richard Purga, who puts together the draft budget for the grant every year.

Long ago, the money from the federal government was used for things: roads, buildings, food.

Safe House, for teens escaping prostitution, was purchased with block grant funds. More recently, the Salvation Army got a new roof for its shelter.

But now, most of the money goes to salaries. Of the $2.8 million available in federal CDBG money last year, $1.8 million went to salaries and benefits. And the vast majority of that — $1.5 million — went to 46 city employees.

It paid for police officers patrolling some of the most dangerous streets, nonprofit counselors helping homeowners avoid foreclosure and YWCA lifeguards watching the Front Street pool.

The only large non-salary budget item in last year’s grant was the city paving program. The council put $562,000 into two miles of roads.

The rest of the grant was used almost entirely for insurance, mortgage payments and other building costs. Just $5,687 was used for program supplies.

That’s not to say the services provided by people are less valuable than a newly paved road.

“It’s a critical component that supports a lot of programs that help people,” Purga said.

But every year, City Council members debate the issue as they consider the proposed budget. The long-term value of a roof is often weighed against the necessity of paying for an agency’s staff.

Councilman Carl Erikson plans to argue again for purchases rather than salaries at this year’s budget sessions, which begin April 7.

“I think, as much as possible, that money should be used to purchase permanent improvements to our community,” he said.

But if the city is going to leave its 2014 budget intact, it doesn’t have much wiggle room.

Council members essentially already decided to spend the CDBG funds on salaries when they agreed on the city budget last fall. They included $1.5 million from CDBG in the 2014 city budget.

Erikson criticized that decision, although he eventually voted for the budget, calling it a “compromise” at the time.

“That just plugs a gap in the budget,” he said Friday. “I don’t think it’s healthy.”

He also said he thought the nonprofit agencies duplicate services. He wants CDBG money to be spent instead on sidewalks, road repairs and playground improvements.

“Something where someone sees it and says, ‘Wow, that looks great, I want to move here,’ ” he said.

But if agencies lost their funding, it might wipe them out. For some agencies, CDBG is the only source of grants for salaries.

Hamilton Hill Arts Center, for example, relies on CDBG to help pay its executive director.

Bethesda House subsisted for years on CDBG money to pay its leader, who ran a drop-in center for the homeless, indigent and mentally ill. Now, the agency is a major player in sheltering the homeless, runs two residential programs, and receives money from many sources.

Purga considers Bethesda House a success story — an indication of what CDBG can help support.

Some agencies leverage CDBG funds toward a larger grant.

SICM gets a USDA grant for food for its summer lunch program for children. But that grant doesn’t cover running the program — so SICM gets $5,000 from CDBG for that, said the Rev. Philip Grigsby, SICM executive director.

He noted that in the recent past, CDBG also paid the salaries for job counselors at Jobs Etc., another SICM agency.

“It basically ran the program,” Grigsby said of the CDBG money, explaining that the counselors were the program, essentially.

And when the council cut off the grant, Jobs Etc. closed down.

The council will get its first look at the proposed 2014-2015 CDBG budget Apr. 7 at its committees meeting, which starts at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall.

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