2018-04-13 / Front Page

Grants given

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The city council has distributed its Community Development Block Grant dollars and, as always, there are winners and losers. Or, more correctly, those who get and those who get not.

City Manager Scott Morelli said 18 grant applications, including from the city itself, were submitted for $401,457 in available funds. Of those, 15 got what they were asking for, “either whole or in part,” Morelli said.

The actual dollar amount the city will get funneled down from the feds is not yet final, however, and those who did not get penciled in for the full amount requested could score a bonus if additional dollars flow. But that largess would not extend to any of the denied applications.

“If we are not flat-funded, the (Community Development Block Grant) committee requests a proportional increase across the board for the items that were funded,” Morelli said, preparatory to the city council vote to approve this year’s awards, at its April 3 meeting.

If the hike in expected federal funding exceeds last year’s payout by 20 percent or more, the seven-member Community Development Advisory Committee would reopen applications and start its review over from scratch, Morelli said.

In all, seven local entities received some level of funding, while nine city projects got the nod.

The money comes from South Portland’s share of Community Development Block Grant funds allocated to Cumberland County by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development. According to Councilor Claude Morgan, an agreement was hammered out more than a decade ago that brought South Portland under the county umbrella, even though the city was “doing quite well” securing Community Development Block Grant dollars on its own, he said.

Because Community Development Block Grant money is designated in large part to help low-to-moderate income families though direct aid and economic development, the county “needed our demographics,” in order to secure the maximum slice of the pie, Morgan said at the April 3 meeting.

“The deal was that in order to join the county, we said he have to make out better than we do now,” Morgan said.

The result was an agreement that each year South Portland will get 23 percent of whatever Community Development Block Grant funds are allocated by Cumberland County to the city of Portland. However, with South Portland’s lower income residents thrown into the pot, the county ends up getting a larger grant, which it can then distribute county wide.

“The result is that someplace like, say, Harrison, can now get a playground that it would not have otherwise been able to afford,” Morgan said at a 2016 meeting.

“Essentially, (Community Development Block Grant funding) is a rebate program. Your tax dollars go in and the federal government funnels some of that money back to your local community,” Morgan added at the April 3 meeting.

Still, while South Portland gets a larger grant than it used to when applying for Community Development Block Grant funds independently, only 15 percent of the Portland set aside is allowed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to go directly to service groups, while up 20 percent can be used for city costs to administer the program. The rest is given to public facilities, infrastructure projects and housing.

And, as always, there are tough decisions to be made. This year, for example, the Community Development Block Grant committee for the first time declined dollars for the South Portland Food Cupboard, which last year got $9,743.

“This has been one of the more difficult and challenging years, committee Chairman Anton Hoecker said.

“We had three new programs that we thought it was important to support, so, some other programs got zeroed out, unfortunately.”

The new programs included two city initiatives, a community paramedic project and a senior bus program, as well as a “Wheels for Kids” outing at Memorial Middle School.

For the paramedic pilot project, the fire department asked for $25,000 to conduct follow-ups on overdose incidents, medical errors and mental health calls to 911. The Community Paramedic Project would work in conjunction with the South Portland police department’s behavioral health liaison. The committee recommended, and the city council approved $7,719, which according to the committee action plan submitted by Community Development Coordinator Sandy Warren, is meant to “help assist in completing necessary milestones and performance measures to evaluate (the) program’s viability and continuation.”

For the senior bus program, the parks and recreation department asked for $5,000 (and got $2,500) to provide bus rides for seniors to classes at the community center, using its existing 16-passenger bus.

“The goal of this program is help get those seniors that would otherwise not be able to attend local lunches or weekly fitness classes, the ability to do so,” Morelli wrote in his overview.

The funding would pay for the city’s administrative costs to schedule the rides.

The middle school got its entire $2,000 request. According to Memorial Middle School Outing Club advisor Matt Lunt, the money will be used to buy seven introductory-level mountain bikes and seven helmets. Lunt said a lack of bikes has become a barrier for program participation for those students unable to afford one of their own. Memorial Middle School will own and maintain the bikes and make them available to lowincome students to use during club outings.

Other funded public services include Southern Maine Agency on Aging, which got $9,000 of the $12,000 it requested for its Meals on Wheels program; Opportunity Alliance, which got $17,000 of its annual $25,000 request to pay the staff it provides for the Redbank Community Hub service center; and Family Crisis Services, which got $6,500 of the $7,000 it asked for to help fund its domestic violence outreach support services.

City programs funded in addition to the paramedic pilot project and the new senior bus service include $7,500 for the emergency home heating fuel assistance program (the general assistance office had asked for $10,000) and $8,000 to offer recreational scholarships to city children whose families can not afford various recreation department program fees. The department had requested $10,000.

Losing out was the food cupboard, which wanted $25,000, and the transportation department’s free bus pass program, which requested $8,1000.

Hoecker said the cupboard lost out for two reasons. The primary one was that it continues to pay an annual lease for its facility on Thadeus Street, which it found after losing its original home when St. John’s Church on Main Street closed in 2013. The food pantry had been given space in St. John’s free of charge.

“We really don’t want to pay for their lease,” Hoecker said. “For years now we’ve been saying, ‘Can you find a new place? Let’s put that money to the people.’”

Also failing to impress the committee was the fact that in the wake of founding director Sybil Riemensnider last year, who always donated her time, the Food Cupboard has paid an executive director.

“We were like, if you can find money to do that, why can’t you find money to do this (pay the lease),” Hoecker said.

“Charities have accountability as well, and they need to withstand scrutiny,” Morgan said, assessing the council’s agreement to defund the pantry.

Meanwhile, the free bus pass program, which provides free rides to low-income residents, simply lost out in the competitive review. However, Transportation Director Art Handman said he has other sources of grant funding, and the program will continue.

Among the money allocated for public facilities, infrastructure and housing, the American Legion post on Broadway got $14,268 of the $24,174 it asked to help pay for a new roof, estimated to cost $254,000.

“We’re just trying to keep that post going,” said Legion member Michael Pock said.

Meanwhile, the South Portland Land Trust got its full request ($15,000) to complete its Long Creek Trail project, while Port Resources was fully funded at $11,970 to help buy and install a new boiler/burner, as well as seven replacement windows, at one of its South Portland group homes, one of 20 sites it operates for people with developmental and behavioral health challenges.

Funded city projects include $15,000 to the parks and recreation department for its Healthy Landscapes project, $10,000 to Community Development Block Grant staff from housing rehab work, and $225,000 (of $275,00) requested to public works, to go toward planned Improvements to Westbrook Street.

Warren said the Healthy Landscapes project “will serve as a model for South Portland residents and businesses in the transition to sustainable land care practices as required by the pesticide use ordinance enacted in September 2016.”

The demonstration of how to care for lawns and gardens under the new ordinances will be located on a 1-acre lot owned by the city adjacent to the Greenbelt Trail in the Pleasantdale neighborhood.

The housing rehab money will be doled out to help residents with emergency repairs and heating system fixes for single-family, low-income homes.

“This program is designed to assist approximately two to three households in 2018-2019,” Warren said. “And there is a possibility to maximize the benefits of these funds, should the sustainability office receive grant funds from efficiency Maine.”

Losing out in its request for $50,000 was the South Portland Housing Development Corporation, an arm of South Portland Housing Authority, which had requested a grant to help make sewer and water connections to its planned project to turn the former St. John’s Church site into a 42-unit affordable housing complex.

“The committee gave this project a low priority and as a result did not end up funding it,” Warren wrote. “This was in part because the project was not shovel ready and because construction is contingent upon a tax credit application that will not be submitted until the fall of 2018 for approval in the spring of 2019.

“We welcome (South Portland Housing Development Corporation) to apply for funds next year if they receive tax credit allocations to move forward with the project,” Warren wrote in the committee action plan.

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