Buffalo lags behind similar cities all over the country when it comes to getting federal anti-poverty funds through City Hall and onto the street, according to a new report.
The delay means that the city has more than $31 million in unspent block grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, representing more than two years’ worth of funding, according to an analysis prepared by Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder.
Among 68 cities that receive more than $5 million in Community Development Block Grant funds, Buffalo ranks 68th in its ability to spend the funds, which pay for things such as emergency home repairs and demolitions.
“This is designed by the federal government to do something about socio-economic conditions within cities, and when you’re not spending the money, they have to explain this,” Schroeder said in an interview.
The administration believes it can meet this year’s deadline to spend the funds, and HUD said on Monday that it agrees.
Schroeder’s latest report highlights his growing frustration with officials of Mayor Byron Brown’s administration who oversee the way the city spends HUD funds, and in an interview he challenged administration officials to a public debate on the matter. The comptroller’s office was brought in by HUD two years ago to disperse the funds, and he has since been a vocal critic of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency, which handles much of the way the funds are spent.
But Brendan R. Mehaffy, executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning, which oversees BURA, said that the transition two years ago caused much of the delay. HUD, which mandated the change and communicates with the city, understands that, he said.
“At the end of the day that’s where we take our cues from in terms of this work,” Mehaffy said.
In the event the city does not meet the August deadline, HUD wouldn’t automatically take the money back, he said.
Buffalo gets $13.4 million in CDBG funds every year, and has an estimated $31.3 million that hasn’t been spent, equal to two and one-third years. Only three other cities have more than two years of CDBG funds unspent. HUD regulations mandate that cities have an unspent grant balance of one and one-half years.
The city is in danger of becoming out of compliance with HUD regulations unless it is able to spend more than $12.5 million by Aug. 1, or $6.3 million per month, Schroeder warns.
If the city doesn’t spend the money by the deadline, it will be at least the third year in a row that it has not been compliant. Indeed, the city’s inability to quickly get the federal funds to where it needs to go to do the most good has been a problem that stretches back decades.
In some program areas, the city has committed to specific projects just small fractions of the funds the federal government has sent it. Just 10 percent of the city’s $2 million housing funds have been committed, and just 25 percent of $7.6 million it has for business loans have been committed, though Mehaffy said major commitments for the Tishman building and loan repayment, totaling $3.1 million, will quickly raise that percentage. Meanwhile, the city has done much better spending money on the city payroll and administration costs, as 94 percent of that budget has been committed.
Mehaffy said that now that warmer temperatures have arrived, much of the weather-dependent work can be done, such as street and sidewalk repair, demolitions and housing construction and rehabilitation.
Though Schroeder said that the city might make its spending targets for demolition and streets and sidewalk repair, he warned that of cities that receive CDBG funds of $10 million to $15 million every year, Buffalo has the highest percentage of funds available and the most actual dollars available.
“While this may seem like an enviable position, it actually indicates that the City does the worst job of any of its peers spending CDBG funds,” states Schroeder’s report.
But HUD does not seem too concerned, and said Buffalo has submitted a plan to HUD for how it would spend block grant funds and that it meets the department’s approval.
“The City should be on target to meet the necessary funding level by August 1. Should the City of Buffalo not meet the expenditure deadline, the City will have the opportunity for a hearing with HUD to determine if there were extenuating circumstances that prevented the City from expending federal funds in a timely manner,” the agency said through a spokesman, Adam Glantz.