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Buffalo to get $500,000 from state to compete for bigger anti-poverty grant

Buffalo is one of 10 cities in New York State that will get $500,000 to produce a plan to fight poverty under an initiative announced Sunday by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul at True Bethel Baptist Church.

After coming up with their plans, Buffalo and the other cities can then apply for grants from a $20 million fund matching private-sector and foundation money to implement the initiatives.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who will give more details about the program during his State of the State address Wednesday, made the same announcement at a church in New York City, Hochul said.

The Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative continues a Cuomo pattern of rolling out programs that make cities compete for pots of money. On Saturday, for instance, the governor said his administration will offer a $200 million pot to upstate airports for improvement projects, with five airports winning $40 million grants. And for the last few years, regions have had to compete for awards from the state’s Regional Economic Development Council Program in a bid to spur local economies.

Cuomo’s stance seems to be that competition for state funding improves the quality of ideas submitted and prompts communities within regions to think in a team-like approach with more bold proposals instead of being dictated to by Albany. But others say that the process wastes the time of businesses, people and governments that do not win the grants and that the plans amount to relatively small pots of funding.

Doubts also have been raised about how much of a competition these initiatives really are. For instance, for a $1.5 billion economic development competition lawmakers dubbed “The Hunger Games,” ostensibly open to seven regions, the common wisdom was that Rochester, Syracuse and the Southern Tier already were going to be winners going into it; in the end, each got $500 million. (The Buffalo area was not eligible for that pot of money because it already benefited from the Buffalo Billion economic-development program.)

Other such programs from the Cuomo administration include the 76 West clean energy competition for $20 million that was open only to Southern Tier businesses, and Western New York’s 43North competition that gives out $5 million each year to entrepreneurs and startups from around the world.

Not every development effort should be competitive, some local leaders said.

“I think it’s a good idea to have some level of competitive funding because competition brings out the best and often it helps people sharpen their ideas and come up with better ideas,” said Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good. “But when it comes to fighting poverty, there’s also a need for funding (sources)... that are not competitive, that are just tailored to existing issues and programs and policies that we already know about that just need more funding.”

Specifically, Magavern said, there is a real need for more funding from the state for social services and community-based development. The state’s affordable housing programs and transportation providers like the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority could use more money, too, he said.

“Many problems could be solved tomorrow with more adequate funding from the state,” Magavern said.

There’s a certain logic to competition, said L. Nathan Hare, CEO of the Community Action Organization of Erie County.

“You will end up funding things that have high expectations that services will be run well, and outcomes will be achieved,” Hare said.

The other part of the story, he added, is it’s important to make available non-competitive, direct funding to strengthen services that already exist.

For instance, “poverty is systematic across the state and the country, so you have problems that have to be addressed that are predictable,” he said. “You need to put resources into programs that already get funding and that will give you the most traction to get people out of poverty.”

The $25 million initiative announced Sunday aims to bring together state and local government, nonprofits and business groups to design coordinated solutions to tackle poverty. The cities were chosen based on their concentrations of poverty. The others are: Syracuse, Binghamton, Oneonta, Utica, Elmira, Jamestown, Oswego, Troy and Albany.

“Despite the fact that unemployment’s down everywhere – and it’s 6 percent here in Buffalo – and the jobs are coming back, we still have neighborhoods with deep pockets of poverty where people are in pain,” Hochul said in announcing the initiative.

Mayor Byron W. Brown called it “a great idea” that will expand opportunities for those in poverty.

“We’ve really been trying to make Buffalo a city of opportunity for all people, and to be able to partner more closely with the state on this very complex problem in a way that will enhance partnerships with state and local governments, local nonprofits and business groups, I believe will make a big difference,” Brown said.

Even though the initiative is relatively small in the context of the state budget, Magavern was happy to see poverty getting this kind of attention.

“$25 million is not a lot of money,” Magavern said. “On the other hand, the focus on poverty – and in particular urban poverty – and the idea of strategic planning and state funding behind it is certainly very welcome. It’s been hard to get elected leaders anywhere in the country to focus on poverty and especially concentrated poverty that a lot of our cities – like Buffalo – are experiencing.”

The key to distributing the $25 million most efficiently lies first in assessing what is being done already, and then establishing which efforts need more resources, Hare said.

“It’s not a lot of money. So when you’re talking about that kind of money, you have to look at who is already doing stuff in a cohesive way,” Hare said. “If there’s already somebody doing that, don’t put any more money in that.”

News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this report. email: dswilliams@buffnews.com