Local leaders from across the country are angrily and aggressively pushing back against proposed cuts in Congress -- cuts that would gut large portions of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. For many organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) and the National Association of Counties (NACo), the current fight to preserve funding for CDBG represents the biggest mobilization effort in memory.
“When you have this level of assault on the future of metro areas all across the country, mayors are responding, county officials are responding and legislators are responding,” says Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, the second vice president of the USCM, who has also called the proposed cuts “outrageous” and “un-American.” “I think everyone understands the seriousness of the current situation,” he says. “This is a fight worth fighting.”
Mayors and county leaders were already concerned when President Obama’s budget proposal included a 7.5 percent reduction in funds for the 36-year-old grant program, which last year provided $4 billion to local governments to help pay for infrastructure improvements, anti-poverty initiatives and other community improvement programs. But local leaders became even more incensed when House Republicans announced a plan to slash the program by 62.5 percent for the current fiscal year, taking the grants program to its lowest level of funding since 1988.
It’s not the first time CDBG has been on the chopping block. President George W. Bush reduced funding for the grants during his time in office, and in 2005 he proposed moving CDBG from the Housing and Urban Development Department to the Commerce Department, and replacing the block grants with more targeted economic development funds.
But what’s especially troubling about the latest proposed cuts, local leaders say, is that no one in Congress has explained or justified the drastic reductions. “What’s different about this is that these cuts are irrational,” says USCM Executive Director and CEO Tom Cochran. “There have been no hearings. You’ve got Congressmen just slashing away without any discussion as to [whether there is] anything wrong with the programs. We haven’t had a chance to make our case to Congress.”
Making matters worse, Cochran says, is that the cuts would come at a time when cities and counties are still reeling from the recent economic downturn. “Now is the worst time ever to cut CDBG because of the economic situation cities are facing and the jobless recovery,” he says. “If you’re looking at the worst economic situation we’ve had since the Great Depression, what would you do? You damn sure wouldn’t cut out a major program that deals with jobs and job production.”
The current proposal is perhaps even more stinging to local leaders because it comes under a president who pledged on the campaign trail to increase funding for CDBG. The president has threatened to veto the Republican budget bill, but the White House hasn’t been very publicly involved in fighting the cuts on Capitol Hill, says Cochran. “We’ve been urging the administration to get involved and be strong. A lot of the senators that we’ve talked to have told us they could really use more involvement from the White House.”
Mostly, local leaders say, the cuts represent an unfair and outsize assault on a single federal program. “I’m willing to take a hit,” says Glen Whitley, a judge in Tarrant County, Texas, and the president of NACo. “But to only cut domestic programs and leave the 500-pound gorilla [of foreign and military spending] alone just doesn’t make sense.”