Proposed Cuts To Block Grants Spark 'Outrage, Panic'

February 27, 2011

Alex Kellogg

President Obama announced plans earlier this month to cut $1.1 trillion from the deficit over 10 years. But one proposed cut is causing deep concern among mayors and other local officials on both sides of the aisle — cuts to the longstanding Community Development Block Grant programs.

Roughly 1,200 communities in the U.S. receive Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs). The grants fund everything from affordable housing to job creation programs. Last year alone, the government gave out nearly $4 billion in block grants. Most of that money went directly to cities and counties; the rest flowed through states and on to local governments.

President Obama is now proposing a 7.5 percent cut to the program — that's roughly $300 million worth of funding.

Local Democrats and Republicans say such cuts will only hurt cash-strapped cities and counties. But the cuts could go even further if congressional Republicans have their way.

"There's outrage, there's panic, there's a situation where we have to stop whatever it is we're doing and be heard on this particular issue at this particular time," says Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett.

Cornett is the president of the Republican Mayors and Local Officials coalition. His city received $7.1 million in block grant money in the last fiscal year alone.

So Cornett was in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with White House officials. At the top of his agenda: pushing back on the proposed cuts. On Thursday, he joined 30 U.S. mayors who urged Congress not to move forward with the proposed cuts. Many Republicans are pushing for a 62 percent cut in the program.

But Cornett admits that on this issue, Republicans at the local and national level don't see eye to eye.

"They have heard me year in and year out," he says. "This is an annual issue. Throughout the Bush White House years, we were receiving, you know, small cuts in CDBG. And so I know there's not a single representative for the state of Oklahoma who doesn't already know how the mayor of Oklahoma feels."

Created by President Gerald Ford in 1974, block grants were preceded by more complex, competitive grant processes considered to be far less efficient.

Local officials across the country say that despite the effectiveness of the grants, they're persistently singled out for cutbacks.

Ron Loveridge, the mayor of Riverside, Calif., was elected in a nonpartisan race, but says he is a Democrat in a largely Republican county.

"At the very time where you need this sort of help, particularly for disadvantaged members of the community, the opposite is taking place," Loveridge says.

Last year, Riverside used millions in block grant money for park improvements, housing development and nonprofit funding.

That's why the National League of Cities — a group that promotes the interests of cities nationwide — is against the cuts. During last week's congressional recess, the NLC pushed mayors and other local officials to lobby with their lawmakers.

Jim Hunt, a City Council member in the small town of Clarksburg, W.Va., is a past president of the NLC.

"The one thing that Republicans and Democrats have generally joined together [on] is to say that CDBG is a worthy program and one that shouldn't be cut," Hunt says.

But congressional Republicans argue that the government is out of money — and can't keep passing the nation's massive debt onto future generations.

"We have got to make cuts," says Maryland Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. "This is totally unsustainable, and business as usual is just not an option now." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.