COLUMBIA — A perception that city government has neglected the First Ward is among the themes that emerged during this season’s campaign for the ward’s seat on the Columbia City Council. Candidates, and the residents who gathered for election forums, have expressed concerns about crime, blight, drug abuse and a lack of affordable housing that they think the city budget fails to address.
But is the city really spending less in the First Ward than it does elsewhere? That’s a hard question to answer. Planning and Development Director Tim Teddy, with some help from other city administrators, broached the subject in a December 2005 report requested by incumbent First Ward Councilwoman Almeta Crayton.
That report, the most recent of its kind, reviewed city spending in the First Ward from 2001 through 2005. It indicated that First Ward spending was on par with the rest of the city and that, in some cases, the First Ward receives proportionally more money than the city’s other five wards. Nineteen percent of spending on public works projects during the period occurred in the First Ward, and the First Ward average of about $165,000 per year for capital improvement spending was comparable to the other five wards.
The report also noted that the city spent about $400,000 per year on parks and recreation programs during that period.
Teddy said last week that he doesn’t know whether the statistics would hold true today.
Much of the debate among council candidates centers around the way the city spends Community Development Blocks Grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which total about $800,000 per year. The candidates agree that the money is a crucial part of the budget for central-city projects but differ on how it should be spent.
Block grants are intended for projects that improve low- to moderate-income neighborhoods. Teddy said that about 30 percent of the Columbia area is eligible for the grants and that most or all of the First Ward is eligible.
Although the city can spend block grants on either infrastructure or social programs, there’s a long-running debate about whether a disproportionate share of block grant money goes toward infrastructure. It’s worth noting that the city does have a separate budget for social services that this year exceeded $800,000.
For fiscal 2008, the city budgeted $213,500 for housing programs, $372,000 to rebuild Hunt Avenue and $162,000 for community services and facilities. That distribution falls in line with rough guidelines adopted by the council.
HUD also gives Columbia more than $600,000 worth of HOME grants each year to increase affordable housing stock, boost owner-occupancy rates and encourage the construction of special needs housing. That money is not limited to the First Ward.
Here’s what the candidates have to say about First Ward spending.
Crayton said the way the city allocates Community Development Block Grants is not what HUD intends. She said there is only one way to get the city to abide by proper federal guidelines.
“You have to have someone come in here from the federal government and explain how to use them properly and what’s to be done.”
Crayton said some of the burden falls on First Ward residents and on those who do receive funding through the city, in the First Ward and elsewhere.
“We need to hold those in this community who receive money and funding accountable for their actions,” Crayton said. “Either you want to see real change or you’re just part of the problem.”
Crayton supports using federal money for youth programs similar to those she’s started on her own. Crayton said she was instrumental in acquiring funding for the creation of a youth vocational training program that puts teenagers to work during the summer building and repairing local houses. They learn carpentry skills that can lead to future jobs.
“Our kids need somewhere to go,” Crayton said. “We have the resources on the books.”
Baxter said the city should be spending more in the First Ward than elsewhere because, as the oldest part of the city, its needs are greater. Federal block grants should emphasize youth programs and education, not infrastructure, she said.
“The city could always allocate city funds for sidewalks,” Baxter said. “That’s the city’s responsibility regardless of the federal money that comes in. I don’t think that the city should spend it on things they should already be providing us. ... I notice lots of kids hanging around in the middle of the day. Why are they not in school? The city has programs but maybe they’re not as effective. It seems to me we are not focusing enough of our creative energy of the people here to come up with programs for Ward One.”
Baxter noted that strong programs for youth can lead to fewer problems with crime and unemployment.
She also said the city should put more federal money toward helping seniors maintain their homes.
Sturtz said he would like to see Community Development Block Grant money going toward programs and the repair of facilities, rather than to the repair of infrastructure.
“The city needs to give (the First Ward) a higher allocation of general public works funding for these basic projects and then just (use) the CDBGs to beef up some of the programs and facilities that are located in the First Ward that are about improving the culture and the services,” Sturtz said.
Sturtz said using block grants to rehabilitate abandoned buildings would be appropriate. He also said more of the money should go toward youth programs, and mixed-income housing in the First Ward. He also likes the idea of spending the money on neighborhood resource centers, which could provide information to residents about low-interest loans for housing repair and other programs. The centers would also tell residents of volunteer opportunities, such as openings on Columbia’s boards and commissions.
“(CBDGs) are there to level the playing field,” Sturtz said. “There are a lot of great programs that need more funding and that would benefit tremendously from a boost.”
Clark said that if he were elected he would ask for a much better analysis of First Ward spending.
“The First Ward and a lot of the central city has long been neglected in a whole bunch of ways,” Clark said. “But it’s not as bad as some people say. This involves a much more complex analysis of what money the ward receives in comparison to other wards, and how it should be used.”
Clark said HUD money should not have been part of the equation in the 2005 report.
“The city can only spend HUD money is those areas deemed eligible. If the city takes that into account, then the First Ward has not been getting their fair share.”
Affordable housing and programs that improve owner-occupancy rates are extremely important, Clark said. He’s OK with the city using block grants for “bricks and mortar” as long as the city puts HOME money to good use.
“Infrastructure does improve the lives of the community. Actually building roads, parks and sewers creates an environment in which people thrive.”