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Tensions surface as block grant budget review begins

As the federal block grant pie continues to shrink, Mayor Byron W. Brown is proposing a $20.9 million spending plan that focuses on neighborhood revitalization and economic development.

The Common Council began its review of the funding application Wednesday, and it's clear that some lawmakers and community leaders have concerns. Part of the dilemma involves the inevitable tensions that surface when there's less money to go around for programs that are aimed at curbing blight and poverty. The city's federal allocation has been cut in each of the past two years, and city planners say there's every indication the city will see more cuts this year -- perhaps a 10 percent reduction.

"It's not a pretty block grant," said Council Majority Leader Dominic Bonifacio Jr.

Even before the Council held its first review session, some were complaining about the mayor's planned allocations to various human services groups.

For example, Tracy Diina, executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Buffalo and Erie County, accused the administration of snubbing her request for $32,000 in aid. She said it's "insulting" that the mayor only allocated $5,000 -- the same amount as last year -- to a cause that he purports to champion.

"I'm so annoyed with their doublespeak," Diina said. "Yet I look at the [block grant] list, and it's clear they found enough money for some pet projects."

South Council Member Michael P. Kearns criticized the budget for slashing aid to the South Buffalo Community Center by about 20 percent. Kearns said the city should penalize agencies in South Buffalo that have taken steps in recent years to consolidate services and save money.

Timothy E. Wanamaker, Buffalo's strategic planning chief, defended the budget.

"We have a lot of great agencies that do a lot of unbelievable work. But at the end of the day, we have a finite amount of money," he said.

The budget focuses mainly on 12 neighborhoods throughout the city for revitalization. It also includes money to continue boarding up and demolishing vacant buildings, funding for home rehabilitation loans and the continuation of commercial loan programs. As in past years, some lawmakers are pressing for assurances that resources be committed to neighborhoods that aren't crime-infested or stricken by poverty.

"Do you only deal with neighborhoods that are potential war zones?" asked Joseph Golombek Jr. of the North District, who is overseeing the Council's block grant review.

Another point of dissension is the Brown administration's contention that the Council's role in deciding how block grants are spent is purely advisory. Brown and his predecessor, Anthony M. Masiello, insist that it's the administration's job to send a final application to federal officials in Washington.

Council President David A. Franczyk said that although there has been "good cooperation" between the two government branches when it comes to block grants, he's upset that the administration continues to maintain that the Council's role is advisory.

"We've been approving [block grants] for 33 years, and they just refuse to acknowledge that fact," Franczyk said. "This body has approval power over this document."

The Council plans to approve a revised block grant budget in early February.


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