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Mayor seeks strong plan for use of block grants

Mayor Byron W. Brown is taking his first crack at doling out millions of dollars in federal block grants, but he faces a challenge as funding continues to shrink.

The administration wants its first block grant plan to send a strong signal that it's committed to fostering economic development, revitalizing neighborhoods and supporting human services. It's easier said than done, given that Buffalo's federal aid is being cut by $1.5 million -- an 8.4 percent reduction.

Officials think they have crafted a plan that balances priorities. About $10 million of the $16.5 million plan would be earmarked for economic development, rehabilitation and home ownership assistance. Nearly $2 million would go to human services groups, a $181,000 reduction from the current year.

Officials said they're cutting city administrative costs by about $302,000, or 7.2 percent, to help offset cuts in federal aid. Strategic Planning Director Timothy W. Wanamaker said it will mean some staff reductions, but he won't know how many until spring.

"We feel it's only fair to implement these cuts equitably," he said. "And we want to see more money out on the streets."

One new component involves using some money to finance the borrowing of $6 million from Fannie Mae. The money would finance new housing and provide low-interest loans to homeowners who want to fix properties.

North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. will preside over a Council review of the block grant budget, which is part of a larger $22 million funding application the city will send to Washington. Golombek has been a critic of how Buffalo has spent block grants, claiming it has squandered much of the $566 million it received over the past three decades to fight poverty and blight. But he said he will support Brown's first block grant budget.

"Considering they've only had a month to work on it, I think the Brown administration is taking a step in the right direction," he said. "The goal has to be getting more money into our neighborhoods."

Spending for economic development would increase slightly -- by about 1 percent. The city will continue commercial lending programs. It will also expand the geographic scope of the Comprehensive Area Revitalization Effort, which provides loans, grants, matching funds and technical help to businesses in targeted areas of the city.

The CARE program, which got off to a much slower start last year than many had hoped, helps businesses renovate or expand properties and improve facades. The program would expand to parts of Bailey Avenue in the University and Lovejoy districts, and into the South Park area.

University Council Member Bonnie E. Russell said she's pleased the program will be available to businesses in new target areas.

"This is something I've been pushing for," said Russell. "We really need this kind of help in our business districts."

Other components include $800,000 to demolish decaying structures, about $300,000 less than the current budget. Council Majority Leader Dominic J. Bonifacio said he would like to see the allocation increased, even though the city also has money for demolitions that it borrowed by selling bonds.

"We have some concerns about the block grant budget," he Bonifacio. "I'm not really happy with the demolition money in it."

Other components include:

* Funding for 37 human services groups, including community centers, recreation programs and housing programs. Most of the groups will see funding reduced from current levels, and Wanamaker said several agencies are being put on a "watch list." These agencies will be required to accept technical assistance from the city in return for receiving aid.

"These are groups that do good work, but have bad management," he said.

* Nearly $589,000 for improvements at public facilities throughout the city. The restoration of the historic Michigan Street Baptist Church would receive $200,000.

* A $31,590 fund for grants to block clubs that sponsor beautification projects.

* Nearly $438,000 for inspectors who enforce housing codes in targeted areas. The sum is less than half of what was provided this year, so the city will have to use other funds if it intends to maintain all inspections services.

The city also hopes to get federal approval to use some block grants for Hickory Woods, a South Buffalo neighborhood that was built on contaminated soil. One step involves a proposed buyout that would allow families in the subdivision to sell their homes at previous fair-market values.


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