Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Location, Location, Allocation

One of the things you hate to hear if you work for government is "a hands-on elected rep." To wit:

For months, Pittsburgh Councilman Ricky Burgess has urged that scant city resources should go mostly to the neighborhoods that need the most help. On Tuesday, he plans to introduce bills that would write that philosophy into the city code.

He wants to change the way the city spends federal Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, money. The city expects $16.5 million in such aid this year, and traditionally it is spread liberally, though technically it is to be spent only in low-income "CD-eligible" census tracts.

Mr. Burgess would concentrate the federal funds on the poorest areas. "It seems to me that CDBG dollars should always be used as significant enhancements for communities that are struggling," he said last week, and overall city investments should be "based on need, rather than on political power."

A plank likely to be controversial on council would redistribute the $675,000 fraction of CDBG funding that is split evenly among the nine council members. Now, each gets to dole out around $75,000 a year to community groups. He would instead give each council member control over around $99 in grant money for each census block -- a fraction of a tract -- that meets federal guidelines for distress in his or her district...
Now, we'll set aside for the moment the fact that Rev. Burgess would get $40,000 more dollars for his district under his new plan than under the existing plan and concentrate on whether this is effective policy or not.

First point, made by Councilwoman Rudiak:
She said some community groups in her district serve neighborhoods that are "at the tipping point" but not poor enough to receive CDBG money. She said those groups are frustrated that "we need to move backward [economically] before we can move forward" using the grants.
Which is a salient point: Carrick may not be in critical condition today (like parts of Rev. Burgess' district), but if one looks closely one can see that there's potential for the neighborhood to slide into oblivion. Astute folks from the South Hills will point out that the Carrick of today is pretty much the Garfield of 40 years ago. The question is whether good money should be spent on stopping the decline of a neighborhood versus trying to resurrect one. My guess is that the bang for the buck is in Carrick.

Second, and tangentially related: Council Districts 2 & 3 have a good mixture of fairly decent neighborhoods and fairly distressed ones. Council District 5 has predominantly choice neighborhoods, with one exceptionally distressed neighborhood. The need in those districts may, in fact, be as great if not greater than District 5 & 9, but because they are mixed in with "good" neighborhoods, they won't have as much funding available.

Third, the dangerous implication: what Rev. Burgess is proposing discourages Council Members from improving their neighborhoods' conditions. If I have $114,000 in CDBG money in my pocket as councilman and if I want to be re-elected, I'm going to want to spread that money around to as many groups/neighborhoods/people as possible. In fact, in order to assure that I get more money next time, I'm not going to want to give too much money to any one area, in the off chance that their condition improves, and it's no longer eligible for funding. My goal is to improve the condition just up to the point where it is eligible, but no more.

Perhaps that's a cynical view for an extra $40,000, but in a lot of these more distressed neighborhoods, even $5,000 can buy you a lot of good will with the voters. (And as these areas are defined by the Census, that's $400,000 over 10 years!)

This brings me back to the whole extra $40,000 for Rev. Burgess' district. Now, no one is challenging the need for improvements in District 9, but the question is who benefits under the proposed arrangement? Clearly, District 6 & 9 would benefit the most. This makes me wonder if Rev. Burgess would feel the same way if his district was realigned to include more affluent areas or if he was a Council Member at-large.

Anyway... I lost my train of thought here (I warned everyone about that). Chris Potter has some wonkiness over here that covers some of the same points, and some different ones, and doesn't use the word "oblivion".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Carrick has pretty much gone completely down the tubes. I wouldn't say that the Carrick of today is the Garfield of 40 years ago. Garfield is on the upswing. Carrick is waning.

Most of Brownsville Road is a drug and crime infested nightmare. It just doesn't get as much attention or government services since there are still mostly white folks living there. If you are poor and white no one gives a damn about you.