AUBURN — What happens if a grant program designed to boost community development and housing programs suddenly goes away, or has its funding slashed?

Among the many questions facing officials in Lewiston and Auburn this budget season is how to plan for next year’s Community Development Block Grant program, which is slated for elimination under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget.

The 42-year-old federal program is used by municipalities across the country to support neighborhood rehabilitation projects and affordable housing.

For the Twin Cities, which use the funds for some community and social services programs, the impact from such a move — including budget cuts — would be felt immediately.

The president’s budget proposal says the program is “not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.”

For now, both cities are moving ahead based on receiving flat funding this year, but Lincoln Jeffers, director of economic and community development in Lewiston, said, “There are no guarantees.”

He said the best they have to go on for now is to expect flat funding, which will still require the U.S. Congress to act.

“Lewiston went through its regular Citizen Advisory Committee process, using last year’s allocation as a placeholder,” he said of this year’s budget process. “One of my colleagues was at an industry conference yesterday and the word put out by (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) at the conference was to expect and plan on flat funding for the coming year.”

Yvette Bouttenot, community development manager in Auburn, said she’s also been directed to plan for flat funding, but was urged to come up with a contingency plan.

“I’ve been in this field for 20-plus years, and I think this is the worst danger I’ve heard of being cut, but we’ve never been cut significantly like this (proposal),” she said.

She said the news out of Washington is that it could be a 50 percent cut. Currently, CDBG is funded in the fiscal 2017-18 continuing resolution, which expires April 28.

She said the CDBG program is popular among local municipalities, meaning there’s broad support nationally to advocate for continued funding.

The cuts proposed by the Trump administration target HUD, which administers the CDBG program, and the HOME Investment Partnership program, which funds localized grants used for “building, buying, and/or rehabilitating affordable housing for rent or homeownership.”

According to Bouttenot, Lewiston and Auburn collaborate on the HOME program, splitting the funding based on Auburn administering the program.

The respective community development departments put together five-year CDBG consolidated plans, which, through resident and committee input, lay out specific targets for the community development funds to tackle.

This includes funding to various public service agencies, housing programs, neighborhood infrastructure projects and administrative costs, including some staff positions in departments such as Code Enforcement.

“I do not think President Trump’s characterization of the program is accurate,” Jeffers said in an email Thursday.

He said Lewiston’s program is designed to assist agencies that support moderate to low-income residents, programs that “run the gamut from literacy to workforce readiness training, to early childhood education, to services for the homeless, elderly, and victims of domestic violence.”

He said CDBG funds normally represent a portion of local agencies’ budgets but are still an important piece. For the past several years, Lewiston has fully funded a code enforcement position specifically targeted to the city’s designated CDBG area, which is downtown Lewiston.

Bouttenot said for Auburn, CDBG cuts would have the greatest impact on its housing rehabilitation program and business loan program, which together represent about half of the federal allocation. The funds also support Androscoggin Head Start, literacy volunteers and other social services.

In Lewiston, the agencies that receive CDBG funding include Tree Street Youth, the Trinity Jubilee Center and Lewiston Adult Education. Some of the programs included are already slated to receive less funding next year.

This year’s CDBG budget in Lewiston was $825,000.

Ed Barrett, Lewiston City administrator, said this week that if Congress doesn’t act to add funding for the programs, municipalities such as Lewiston will have to decide which programs to continue funding through the General Fund, which is tax dollars.

“Eliminating this program would clearly have an impact both on the services that it helps support as well as the city’s tax commitment for any programs/expenditures that would have to be shifted to property tax support,” he said.

In Auburn, an annual “action plan” sets forth the program’s yearly goals, with input from city officials and citizens.

Bouttenot presented next year’s draft action plan to the City Council last week. There is a 30-day comment period prior to a public hearing on April 24.

During the meeting, councilors shared disappointment in the results of some of the office’s new programs, including a grant designed to allow neighborhoods to undertake small beautification projects.

The Neighborhood Challenge Grant, funded at $25,000, has received little interest in the city so far, but Bouttenot said her department is still getting the word out.

Councilor James Pross said outreach efforts for the new community development programs are not producing enough results, calling it “incredibly frustrating.”

“We need to have more than good intentions in mind,” he said during the meeting.

Mayor Jonathan LaBonte questioned the amount of funding used for administration. The $760,000 budget includes roughly $250,000 in administration. He asked if that number could be trimmed to get more funds into the community.

John Bubier, acting city manager in Auburn, said if a program is not functioning, staff can look at its consolidated plan and make changes to its goals.

Bouttenot said the STAR Business Loan program, another new venture, is gaining steam. She said if all of the applications received so far were approved, it would use all of the funding available for this year.

The week of April 17-22 is National Community Development week, she said.

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