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Schumer opposes change that threatens Niagara Falls block grants

NIAGARA FALLS – The City of Niagara Falls is in danger of losing out on $2.2 million in guaranteed money used for things like demolition of blighted housing and youth programs.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is looking to alter a policy that would affect the dispersal of Community Development Block Grant funds to cities like the Falls, whose population has recently dropped below 50,000.

The agency is talking about ending a practice of grandfathering in municipalities that dip below that population threshold, a measure Sen. Charles E. Schumer said Monday he plans to oppose.

If the policy of grandfathering municipalities in is dropped – a policy that has been going on since the program started 40 years ago, Schumer said – the Falls and communities like it would have to compete for the block grant funding instead of being entitled to it.

That would mean problems for municipalities, including the Falls, Schumer said, which leverage the funds to obtain additional money for the very same programs and projects. It would also remove the ability to plan for the funding, if it wasn’t automatic every year, the senator said.

“How can a city that’s been using its CDBG money so well under this mayor and this Council’s leadership have the rug pulled out from under them in the middle, when there’s huge bang for the buck?” Schumer, D-N.Y., said during an afternoon press conference outside a former fire hall at 3721 Highland Ave. The property is in the process of becoming the headquarters for the Isaiah 61 Project, a program that provides job training in the construction trades. The planned rehabilitation of the fire hall is one of the projects receiving funding through block grant funds this year.

The Falls’ population has fallen to 49,722, according to a 2012 estimate by the Census Bureau. The City of Troy has recently seen its population dip below 50,000, but it has been grandfathered in and still receives automatic block grant funding, said Schumer, who is a member of the Senate Banking Committee, which oversees block grant funding.

In the last year, the city has demolished more than 50 blighted structures using block grant funding, and also has funded home renovation programs and youth programs, said Seth Piccirillo, head of the city’s Department of Community Development.

Municipal leaders like block grant funding because they have flexibility in how it is spent, said Schumer.

“They can look at a problem and plug a hole in it,” he said.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster called federal block grants “one of the greatest tools for neighborhood revitalization” at the city’s disposal.

Losing the funds “would be a big, big problem for us here in the City of Niagara Falls,” Dyster said.