Federal funds come with all sorts of strings attached.
Getting input from the public on how to spend millions is part of the deal, said Dafne Pharis, Tulsa's grants administration director.
"In the past, we have had public hearings in which we have invited people to come to the city, come and tell us what the city needs are," Pharis said.
But such hearings in previous years resulted mostly in requests from nonprofit agencies, which have typically received the bulk of such funds, Pharis said, with only one or two residents not employed by such agencies showing up to give their thoughts on community needs.
"So we changed the approach this year in how to reach out to people," Pharis said. This month, three meetings will be held at public libraries in some of the poorer parts of town -- to the north, east and west -- as a way of seeking out a more diverse set of opinions about what is most needed in Tulsa. "Being that people are not coming to the city, we're trying to go into their neighborhoods and give them an opportunity to tell us that," Pharis said.
This year, the city will decide how to best allocate roughly $3 million in Community Development Block Grant funds and approximately $1.3 million in Home Investment Partnership Grant monies, Pharis said. The dollars are devoted to helping low-income and moderate-income residents.
Ultimately, funding allocations must be approved by the Tulsa City Council. A report on allocations decided on in 2011 shows that the biggest chunk of block grant funding, about $850,000, went toward the goal of rehabilitating 256 owner-occupied homes.
Another large chunk, about $525,000, went to the Tulsa Economic Development Corporation's loan fund for small businesses. A project to expand the Rosa Parks Early Childhood Education Center in eastern Tulsa received about $580,000 in 2011 funds.
COURTESY OF DAFNE PHARIS
The process hasn't always been painless. Last year, several non-profit agencies requested a deadline extension after their incomplete applications for funding were rejected by the city. Lengthy debate followed, but councilors voted to grant such an extension. With funds limited but need always great, spirited debate often accompanies the final allocation vote.
Pharis said some guidance comes in the form of the city's comprehensive planning document. Also, a five-year plan was put together in 2010 by a prioritization committee charged with examining the best uses for block grant funds.
That group identified three main needs in its recommendations. One such need was to offer expanded economic opportunities to "ensure full participation by populations normally excluded from the economic mainstream."
Another need was to provide suitable living environments to "reduce the isolation of income groups within areas through spatial deconcentration of housing opportunities for lower income persons and the revitalization of deteriorating neighborhoods." The third need identified by the group was to provide more access to decent housing and to increase home ownership for low- to moderate-income families.
The block grants and Home Investment Partnership Grants aren't the only federal grants that flow into the city government, Pharis said, but other grants her office works with "are very specific grants for very specific groups of people and very specific needs," including grants offering assistance to the homeless population and also to citizens with AIDS. These grants "provide housing, shelter, the type of services that people in those circumstances will need," Pharis said.
Other funds, however, like the block grant dollars, have more open-ended uses. One example Pharis gave would be using these grants to build sidewalks "to help people be mobile in low-income areas," or to use the funds to improve community parks. Another potential need would be a request for more assisted living facilities to help the elderly, she said.
Lana Turner-Addison, president and chair of the North Tulsa Economic Development Initiative, said that some in the community weren't completely aware that the new meetings format involved discussion of CDBG funds.
A notice on the city's website didn't mention the block grant program by name. Pharis said churches were notified about the meetings, with notices sent on social media and plans for an outreach effort to make people aware at the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade, to be held this year Jan. 21, the day before the final community meeting.
Turner-Addison said she favored seeking community input but also following through with some of the specific priorities put together as part of the five-year plan.
Along with the three basic needs, the plan listed neighborhood cleanup and demolition, intervention programs for youth and homeless prevention among other priorities for funding.
Turner-Addison suggested it takes a bit of patience to properly administer the funds in order to make a difference in the community.
"If you don't fund something for at least a three-year period, you have nothing to measure it by," said Turner-Addison, the former city human rights director who sued the city while on the job and eventually was fired. Her lawsuit, claiming she was wrongly disciplined while on the job, was dismissed by a federal district judge but an appeal remains pending.
Pharis said part of the reason for holding meetings in neighborhoods is to make sure the funds are spread out to deserving areas. While areas in the northern part of the city may have poor neighborhoods, so, too, do other parts of the city, she said.
"A lot of the funds have been concentrated mainly on the north side, but we know we have a lot of low-income individuals in the west side that may be overlooked," Pharis said.
The council may vote on the allocations at the end of January or early February, Pharis said.
The meetings, all of which start at 6pm, will be held: Tuesday, Jan. 8, at Zarrow Regional Library, 2224 W. 51st St.; Tuesday, Jan. 15, at Martin Regional Library, 2601 S. Garnett Road; and Tuesday, Jan. 22, Rudisill Regional Library, 1520 N. Hartford Ave.
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