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Block Grant Cuts Feared

Local Projects Would Suffer

February 28, 2006
By DAVID LIGHTMAN, Washington Bureau Chief

WINDHAM -- Losing federal money? Send in the cows.

That's what the McSweeney Regional Senior Center is going to do in May. It hopes to sell 1,000 tickets at $10 apiece to people willing to guess precisely where on a local farm a local cow will, ahem, do its business.

Like social service projects all over the country, the senior center needs money because President Bush is threatening steep cuts in his administration's Community Development Block Grants.

In his fiscal 2007 budget, Bush proposed whacking about 20 percent from the popular, 31-year-old program - which already has been cut significantly this year. Connecticut is getting about $42.6 million this year, down from $48.2 million in 2005, for a program that state and local officials have long viewed as one of Washington's effective ways of improving neighborhoods.

The city of Hartford expects to receive $7.6 million in grant money this year, down 8.7 percent from 2005. It uses the funds for projects that include finishing construction of the Boys and Girls Club on Asylum Hill and setting up an after-school program there, helping house people with AIDS in the area, training small business owners at the University of Hartford and developing Hartford's Riverfront Recapture program.

Other Connecticut cities and towns have used the money for similarly diverse projects, including repairing sidewalks, demolishing decaying buildings, rehabilitating housing, planting trees and shrubs - and helping to provide medical and dental care in senior centers like the McSweeney facility.

"CDBG is the glue that keeps communities together. There's such a menu of options - you can use that money to touch almost every citizen," said Marcia J. Sigal, director of community and economic development for the Council of State Community Development Agencies.

The Bush administration and its allies regard the program as wasteful.

"Is the money really necessary to fund some of these projects, and is the money really going to communities in need? On both scores, the answer is often no," said Pete Sepp, spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union. "Thirty years and $100 billion is enough of a test to say this program is a disaster. Pull the plug."

Local officials countered that the money goes to communities that need it. "This is not done without any real thought. There are tough standards," said Ron Thomas, manager of state and federal relations at the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

Windham's plight - it has received an average of $500,000 annually in recent years - is being repeated in town after Connecticut town. On Wednesday and Thursday, First Selectman Michael T. Paulhus and his top aides plan to meet with members of the state's congressional delegation, and other municipal officials are expected to do the same later this year.

They're likely to hear that they have a rough fight ahead. "There are a lot of things we need to spend money on, and restoring [Community Development Block Grant] funding is getting harder each year," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, who is helping to lead the fight to restore funding.

The Grant Tour

It's hard to go down a street in Windham without seeing the grants' impact.

Start at town hall, where the restrooms are now equipped to handle wheelchairs, thanks to 2003 money. Head down Main Street in the Willimantic section, a short distance to the 800 block, where the Tin Tsin Building once stood.

The city, which is part of Windham, used the federal dollars to help demolish the historic but unsalvageable structure. Today the parcel is a sloping parking lot that officials hope will be transformed, with the help of a future grant, into a gateway to a whitewater park bordering the Willimantic River.

Further down the street is the old American Thread Co., once the economic heart of Willimantic. Today, it's being recast as a center for Heritage River Park, and the long gray plant may soon house upscale apartments.

The walk along the nearby river is now part of the Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail, where a sign in front of a shiny black riverfront fence explains that J. Alden Weir painted the scene in the late 19th century. Community grants paid for the fence.

Leave the thread plant, turn left on Dunham Street and then right on Ives Street. The old duplexes on Ives are part of the factory-built housing that sprang up in a lot of company towns a century ago.

Community grants built the smooth sidewalks that now line the street, just as they helped rebuild sidewalks and roads elsewhere.

Washington had some demands, though, before it would hand over the money to fix many streets and sidewalks. On Young Street, Windham executive assistant Don Muirhead had to go door to door getting residents to verify their income.

When he determined that more than half the street's residents were below certain income levels, the government was willing to go ahead with the project.

On Capitol Drive, city officials assured Washington that repaving the road would help the local businesses and pledged to hire lower-income people to fill the jobs.

If the town gets grant money this year, it will pay for improvements at the city's Recreation Park, a huge facility on the east side. At first glance, the park looks like a well-trod patch of weeds and mud. Quonset huts, their powder-blue paint long faded, are covered with graffiti, and no one seems to know what's inside. The basketball court surface is so worn that it has developed deep ruts. Anyone needing a rest room has to use the nearby sewer plant's facilities.

Yet in the warm weather, the park thrives as soccer, hardball, softball, tennis and basketball players play late into the night.

If the town gets grant money this year, officials say they plan to upgrade the park and the area around it. Sidewalks would be built and the facility would get a concession stand, bathrooms and improved fields.

"This kind of project is the reason you have Community Development Block Grants," said Paulhus.

Scraping For Money

Up the road, at the McSweeney senior center, the block grant money has stopped coming.

The center serves about 70 to 80 people a day, providing a wide array of services - lunch, movies, aerobics, bingo, recreation. Residents also can visit a dentist at a small clinic upstairs.The community grant provided crucial funding for the clinic in 1998, but because the money is no longer available, executive director Rose Fowler has been scraping for new ways to come up with the $10,000 a month she needs to help run the center.

In March alone, she plans a bake sale, a book sale and a penny collection raffle, where people guess how many pennies are in a jar. The big event comes in May, when the cow chips in.

Last week, the senior center board gathered to hear Peter Rich, a local raffle expert and retired real estate broker, explain why betting on a cow made good business sense. A farm would be divided into squares, which then would be numbered. People would buy a ticket corresponding to a square's number.

"You feed the cow and put him or her out there," Rich said. "She meanders around, and when she decides it's time, she lets fly." The cow's preferred square becomes the winner.

They talked of promoting the event by bringing the cow downtown on Third Thursday, a local street fair, and by the time Rich was done, everyone was optimistic that thousands of dollars could be raised. But boy, Fowler said, it would be a lot easier if the federal government didn't cut the Community Development Block Grant program.

"We're always fund-raising," she said. "It's not the best way to run something as sensitive as a dental clinic."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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