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McKeesport state senator laments proposed grant funding cuts

| Monday, July 22, 2013, 3:56 a.m.

Lawmakers are raising alarms about proposed cuts in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program.

“Funding from the program has been essential to areas across Pennsylvania for nearly 40 years,” state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, said. “To take it away now would be devastating.”

For the federal fiscal year 2014, which begins on Oct. 1, President Barack Obama proposed $2.79 billion for community development grants. The House proposed to cut $1.67 billion.

If either are approved by Congress, available funds again would be depleted for the program, which a decade ago funneled more than $4.3 billion to local communities based on poverty levels, population trends and housing needs.

“Hundreds of communities in Pennsylvania receive funds from this program,” said Brewster, state Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee minority chairman and former mayor of McKeesport.

“The grant returns taxpayer money to local economies,” Brewster said. “Without it, many municipalities wouldn't be able to make ends meet.”

Three billion dollars were allotted for the grants this federal fiscal year, up from $2.95 billion in 2012, according to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton.

A bid by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia, to reverse what the National League of Cities called an “especially harmful cut” was defeated in the House.

Fattah could not persuade a majority on the House Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, of which U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, is chairman.

In remarks quoted by American City & County, Latham said tough choices had to be made to preserve funds for MAP-21, or “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century,” for transportation funding, air traffic controllers and housing renewals.

“Unfortunately, to meet these priorities under our allocation, we had to provide lower numbers for other parts of the bill,” Latham said.

For this year, Casey said, Allegheny County received $12.56 million in CDBG funds, $2.45 million in home consortium funds and $1.29 million in an emergency shelter grant.

The county Department of Economic Development funnels that money to municipalities through councils of government such as Twin Rivers, Steel Valley, South Hills Area and Turtle Creek Valley.

HUD issues separate block grants for Pittsburgh ($13 million), McKeesport ($969,509) and Penn Hills ($684,378).

Pittsburgh received $1.95 million in home consortium funds, $1.3 million in an emergency shelter grant and $731,171 for housing opportunities for persons with AIDS.

Philadelphia also received a grant in the latter catagory, as did some Pennsylvania municipalities that otherwise would not qualify for the block grant funding.

Casey said Westmoreland County received $3.46 million in block grants, $899,276 in home consortium grants and $359,817 in emergency shelter grants.

“These funds are not gifts to the municipalities,” Brewster said. “The citizens are getting a portion of their taxes back in the form of these grants.”

McKeesport's grant is $1,514,000, less than two-thirds of what it was in 2003. It dropped to $1,486,000 in 2004 and $1,402,000 in 2005.

In February 2005, when President George W. Bush reportedly proposed cutting block-grant funding in half, then-Mayor Brewster told city council, “that would be catastrophic.”

Brewster used that term on Friday to describe the possible impact of 2013 cuts.

In December 2005, Brewster led city and McKeesport Housing Authority officials to Washington for meetings with aides to then-HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson in a bid to prevent block-grant cuts.

In July 2011, McKeesport's grant was threatened when HUD said the city failed “to affirmatively further fair housing within its jurisdiction.”

The dispute was resolved in December 2011 when then-Mayor Regis McLaughlin signed a three-year “voluntary compliance agreement” with HUD.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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