Council juggles block grant funding to preserve economic development, Head Start

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AUBURN — Economic development and some social service programs would get a share of federal block grant money, councilors said Monday night.

Councilors reviewed the draft budget for the Community Development Block Grant spending plan during a two-hour workshop Monday night. At the end, councilors agreed to move some money around in the budget.

The public gets the chance to comment on the budget now, and councilors will vote on it and make last-minute adjustments at their April 17 meeting.

Both Auburn and Lewiston receive block grant money, specifically targeted to poorest areas in the country.

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Community Development Director Reine Mynahan said Auburn is receiving 16 percent less then it did last year. It’s the second year the block grant budget has been reduced by 16 percent.

All told, the city has $990,603 in block grant money to spend on projects and improvements that help the city’s low-income residents for the 2012-13 fiscal year, which begins in July.

The money is divided into functions: public improvements like sidewalk and park construction, housing help, economic development and money to social service agencies such as Head Start and Meals on Wheels.

According to the draft structure, $487,750 was set aside for affordable housing programs — rehabilitation loans, lead removal grants and down payment assistance — and $208,153 was set aside for public improvements. Another $229,700 was budgeted for staff administration and salaries. But nothing was set aside for economic development, and Councilor Joshua Shea took issue with that.

“We have $456,000 going to affordable housing, and zero going to economic development, and that’s backward,” Shea said. “If it’s not backward, it’s just not right. Nothing to help stimulate this area’s economy, nothing to help a small business person come in and nothing to help create jobs and generate more income for people.”

But social service agencies were also reduced. The draft budget also cut all support for the Androscoggin Head Start early childhood education program and Catholic Charities substance abuse treatment program.

“All of this tears at your heart strings a little bit,” Councilor Mary Lafontaine said.

Councilors agreed, and moved some numbers around. They agreed to delay $20,000 worth of masonry work at the Boys and Girl Club building in New Auburn and $31,000 in down payment assistance for first-time home buyers and $10,000 worth of work to the playground at Pettengill Park.

They added that money back, setting aside $40,000 for economic development geared to small business. They also budgeted $8,500 for Androscoggin Head Start and $3,500 for Catholic Charities substance abuse treatment. They also increased the amount of scholarships for Auburn children to attend Auburn Recreation Department summer camp programs by $10,000. Those scholarships were budgeted to receive $18,000.

“Playground structures can be put off, but when we have people that just can’t afford those programs, and they come to us for help, we should be able to help them,” Councilor Leroy Walker said.

Councilors also listened to an explanation of tax increment finance district rules.

Economic Development Director Roland Miller said the discussion was a prelude to a plan to expand Auburn’s Downtown TIF District to include the downtown portion of New Auburn. That would let the city set aside a portion of property taxes from new construction downtown to help pay for road, park and other infrastructure in the New Auburn area.

Miller said he hoped to present an ordinance expanding the downtown TIF later this summer.

staylor@sunjournal.com

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