Local government is all about making tough decisions. Unlike the federal government, we can’t run deficits. We must produce a balanced budget every single year. We also have very limited revenue streams — particularly here in Connecticut. While cities in many states receive at least some income from sales, income or local occupancy taxes, New Haven can only raise revenue though property taxes, fees and permits. As such, New Haven, like many cities, must rely upon grants from the state and federal governments in order to make ends meet.
The Community Development Block Grant is one such federal grant. Began under the Nixon administration, it is now one of the signature anti-poverty programs of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This year, the City distributed $4.5 million dollars through the CDBG program along with smaller amounts for a couple other programs like Housing for Persons with AIDS and Emergency Shelter Grants.
Over the past two months, I’ve been participating in the allocation process for these grants as part of the Human Services Committee on the Board of Aldermen. Many nonprofits from across the city — in addition to several city departments — have testified before the committee and told us about the incredible work that they’re doing to improve our community. We’ve heard from groups like CitySeed, JUNTA for Progressive Action and Columbus House. They provide services that are essential to New Haven residents. But City does not have enough to fully fund any of these organizations.
One answer, of course, would be to find ways to raise more funds. As has been said quite a lot over the past few weeks and will be said more in the coming days, the allocation of federal and state funds depends on completed census forms. It’s possible as well that the City may find other funding sources that can be used to pay for certain programs. But in the interim, the Committee — constrained by HUD restrictions on CDBG funding for the “public service” activities that comprise many of our favorite organizations’ core missions — has $600,000 to work with.
While $600,000 sounds like a lot of money, it doesn’t travel as far during times like these. Many non-profits are struggling to raise private money during this recession, and the state’s massive deficit threatens to end so many of these crucial programs. So many members of the Board have felt pressure to steer money to protect the organizations that serve their constituents. And with such a small amount to go around, we have been forced to make difficult choices — knowing that every single dollar could potentially make or break a program.
During our deliberations on Wednesday, I made a couple of tough decisions myself. I submitted two amendments. The first was to give an additional $16,289 to the Boys & Girls Club to fund the purchase of a solar hot water heater that would save them about $15,000 each year in energy costs. The second awarded $25,459 to Youth Continuum (which serves homeless youth) to hire a job coach. The first amendment was approved in its full amount, and the second was changed to $10,000 but also passed.
While both of these changes sound good, the challenge was to identify funding sources, which had to be other deserving programs. To fund Youth Continuum, $5,000 was taken from a downpayment assistance program and $5,000 was taken from the City’s ESG program — which supports overflow shelters.
I understand the importance of funding these shelters, and it pained me deeply to submit the amendment. But at the same time, Youth Continuum also serves homeless people, and its number of clients doubled in the past year. Over half of their clients are pregnant or parenting, and few of them have any other options when they come to Youth Continuum for help. Their average age is just 19 — and it was very easy for me to imagine myself in their circumstances.
My experience is one faced by local governments nationwide, especially during these times. I made a tough decision and supported one deserving program at the expense of another. I’m going to look for the $5,000 in the City’s general fund budget and elsewhere to offset the change, but I stand by my choice.
Michael Jones is a junior in Saybrok College and the Ward 1 alderman.