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City's proposed anti-poverty funds would bolster fight against blight

The city would spend millions of dollars in federal anti-poverty money to rehabilitate buildings and tear down vacant eyesores under a plan that the Common Council will begin reviewing this week. Other big-ticket items in Mayor Byron W. Brown's $23.8 million application for federal aid include funds to help turn a vacant school on Ontario Street into housing for veterans and people with special needs. The plan also would provide funds to help rehabilitate a building in the Grant-Ferry section that will service refugees.

Money would be earmarked for job training programs, parks improvements, community policing in some neighborhood business districts and repairs to streets and sidewalks.

Nearly 40 human services agencies throughout the city would share nearly $2.9 million in funding.

"This is a plan that places an emphasis on the human factor -- programs that serve our youth, seniors, veterans and people who require job training," said Brendan R. Mehaffy, the city's strategy planning director.

One initiative will provide $150,000 to train low-income residents for jobs in health care and life sciences in hope that they could land positions through expansion of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

The application includes $17.4 million in block grants.

The city's track record for spending such anti-poverty funds has faced harsh criticism spanning three mayoral administrations. But some officials who assailed the city's earlier practices said they believe that more rigorous oversight by federal regulators and intense public scrutiny have helped improve the process.

"I think the city has tightened the reins a bit as a result of the oversight," said Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto, whose Community Development Committee will start dissecting the plan Thursday.

LoCurto was quick to add that this year's application for federal aid also raises questions that will be probed during two days of Council workshops.

One big issue involves the impact that the phaseout of the city's main economic-development agency will have on business assistance programs. Documents filed by the mayor stated that the dissolution of Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corp. is "nearly complete" and that transferring functions to existing city offices will reduce administrative and other costs by $1 million.

Lawmakers want to know more details of a new $50,000 Commercial District Business Improvement Program that is included in the application. They also will push for a breakdown of all administrative costs included in the budget.

"Some of the items just say 'program delivery.' Are they buying rulers? What are the exact expenditures?" LoCurto asked, renewing his call for a more detailed budget that would list every expenditure as a separate line item.

Mehaffy will meet with lawmakers to discuss their concerns. He said the plan complies with federal rules that cap administrative costs at 20 percent.

Mehaffy insisted that the city's block grant process has improved. "People will see a far more concentrated effort than they've seen in the past," he said. "We've developed more strategic plans to meet the needs of communities throughout the city."

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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