Early budget plan would strip federal funding from local housing, infrastructure and nutrition programs designed to aid North Country residents, say officials
By Pete DeMola
This story appeared in The Sun Community News on March 21, 2017
ELIZABETHTOWN — President Trump’s budget blueprint calls for deep cuts in domestic programming in favor of steep increases in defense spending.
Key among the $54 billion in proposed cuts is a 13.2 percent decrease in Housing and Urban Development funding.
The $6.2 billion reduction would entirely eliminate the long-running Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, which funds local housing, infrastructure development and anti-poverty initiatives.
“State and local governments are better positioned to serve their communities based on local needs and priorities,” read the report.
But Essex County officials disagree, and say the preliminary spending plan will have an adverse effect on cash-strapped Adirondack communities with frozen tax bases.
“More affluent communities will be okay,” said Essex County Director of Community Resources Mike Mascarenas. “But areas like Essex County where the majority of the tax base are homeowners, not businesses, they will absolutely struggle to meet mandates — no doubt about it.”
ONE IN EVERY TOWN
The infrastructure grants through the CDBG stream are a critical financing mechanism for infrastructure projects across the county.
Recent projects include the Au Sable Forks Fire Department, the Jay Community Center and infrastructure repair projects in Port Henry and Ticonderoga — including work to make the town hall and Armory ADA-compliant.
Without the funds, user fees would skyrocket, like in Crown Point, where CDBG grants are bankrolling about 70 percent of their water project.
“It’s going to hurt very badly,” said Essex County Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Shaun Gillilland.
Just about every town in Essex and Franklin counties — including Willsboro, the adopted hometown of Rep. Elise Stefanik — has seen a large-scale clean water infrastructure project in the past several years, part of a statewide effort to shore up crumbling infrastructure.
Projects are funded through the grants to avoid tax hikes and high-interest loans.
“Infrastructure is one of our biggest systemic needs, especially in the rural United States,” said Gillilland, a Republican. “If (the budget) goes through, it will cut off a very valuable tool for small, municipal governments to keep their infrastructure up.”
Also on the chopping block are a number of homeowner programs the White House has deemed as “lower priority.”
The Housing Assistance Program of Essex County (HAPEC) receives about $1 million annually for housing rehabilitation and homebuyer assistance programs that aid an estimated 100 local families.
“If (Trump) zeroes that out, or substantially cuts it, that’s a huge impact on us,” said HAPEC Community Development Director Bruce Misarski.
An additional 900 families in Clinton and Essex counties receive assistance through a housing voucher program that pays about 70 percent of their rent.
“These are very low income families, or are elderly, who get subsidies,” Misarski said. “That would be a bad thing as well.”
Loss of that funding would not only impact tenants, but also landlords, contractors, realtors and building supply companies.
“There’s a multiplying factor that would trickle across the community,” Misarski said.
MEALS ON WHEELS
Perhaps no element of the president’s early budget blueprint has generated as much outcry as the possible impact on Meals on Wheels.
But just 3 percent of the national agency’s funding comes from the federal government, CNN reported. The remainder comes from individual contributions and grants from corporations and foundations.
At 7.4 percent, the number in Essex County is slightly higher.
While it remains unclear how the blueprint will affect local residents, Krissy Leerkes, the county’s director of aging services, said the programming, which serves about 1,000 residents, is indispensable.
“Our home delivered meal program is more than a nutrition program,” said Leerkes. “It supports older adults and allows them to age in place. It allows for daily personal contact to ensure the older adults well being and it decreases isolation and vulnerability.”
Each federal dollar is matched with about three dollars from other sources, said the national organization, who acknowledged the so-called “skinny budget” is lean on details — particularly considering information on their primary source of funding, the Older Americans Act, has not been released.
“So, while we don’t know the exact impact yet, cuts of any kind to these highly successful and leveraged programs would be a devastating blow to our ability to provide much-needed care for millions of vulnerable seniors in America, which in turn saves billions of dollars in reduced healthcare expenses,” said Ellie Hollander, President and CEO Meals on Wheels America, in a statement.
The importance of the funds is cast into a sharper relief in Essex County, where the senior meal nutrition kitchen is in the process of being relocated to Westport.
About $400,000 for the $1.2 million project came from the CDBG funding that now stands to be eliminated.
“A tremendous number of people in Essex County rely on those meals,” Gillilland said. “That’s a vital program.”
Funds for the Home Energy Assistance Program are also on the chopping block. New York received $325 million this year for 1.4 million families.
Following its rollout last week, the White House has defended the proposals.
Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the funds stripped from HUD will be funneled into Trump’s proposed infrastructure spending package, Politico reported. But those details haven’t yet been made public, much to the chagrin of county officials.
The budget also contains deep cuts to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency, including monies for climate change research and funds to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants — the chief cause of acid rain in the Adirondack Park.
Funding for dozens of additional programs has been eliminated entirely, including the Northern Border Regional Commission, Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Local arts groups have already started mobilizing against the potential cuts, including North Country Public Radio, who said they would lose 12 percent of their annual revenues, or about $260,000.
NCPR launched their annual fundraising campaign this week.
“With President Trump recommending zero federal funding for public broadcasting, our community’s generosity is essential for our work — and community support sends a message to legislators that public broadcasting matters, particularly in rural areas,” said Station Manager Ellen Rocco in a statement.
The budget has been maligned by state and federal lawmakers from both parties.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a former HUD secretary, said the plan takes “a wrecking ball” to critical federal agencies and said it was “dangerous, reckless and contemptuous” of American values.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) called the plan “irresponsible and will short-change middle class New Yorkers, seniors and students alike while doing harm to a fragile economy.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro) said she does not support the spending plan in its current form.
“While there are savings to be found in every federal agency, I do not support the president’s initial budget proposal, especially the proposed cuts to the State Department, the Department of Education and the EPA,” Stefanik said in a statement. “Furthermore, the president’s budget would cut many important individual programs to our district.”
The second-term lawmaker says she supports eliminating duplicative government programs, fraud and abuse as part of modernization and reform of federal agencies.
But eliminating all federal funding for the NEA is “short-sighted and counterproductive,” Stefanik said.
For every dollar spent on NEA grants, $9 is matched by non-federal or private entities.
“The arts strengthen our communities and help drive local economies,” Stefanik said.
Ultimately the GOP-controlled Congress will take the reins on crafting a spending plan, the lawmaker said.
“The president’s budget proposal is the first step in the process, but ultimately Congress controls the power of the purse and will write the final federal spending plan,” Stefanik said. “During the budgeting process, I will work hard to ensure the needs and priorities of our district are met.”
Details of the full budget proposal will be released in coming months.
Gillilland, the county official, said while the state might fill in some of the gaps, he suspected counties will ultimately have to foot the bill.
In theory, curbing duplication is a good idea, he said. But the federal government is so complex — “It’s a spider web,” he said. “Federal funding runs through everything” — it takes skilled people who intimately understand the process to effectively make those cuts.
The White House, he said, doesn’t appear to grasp those nuances.
“It’s going to make life harder for maintaining essential services,” Gillilland said. “They’re throwing out the bath, but the baby is still in it.”