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City Council, March 24

Budget for 2009 - “OK, but tight, tight, tight”
“Lunching” on Grants, but will they really be free?

Marc Knapp

Steve Bedard, the City’s Chief Financial Officer makes only short speeches, and to the point. Last night’s was no exception. He spoke after copies of the 2009 Budget were distributed. Viewers may recall that the City, after deliberations toward the close of 2008, anticipated a balanced budget. Lower revenues were projected in a number of categories but the overall decline was expected to be made up by an increase in parking fees, a hiring freeze, a restraint in Cost of Living adjustments, and a draw on some fund balances.

Referring to the budget, Mr. Bedard said that “everything was OK, but tight, tight, tight”. The City was watching events closely. He was hopeful that the economy was close to bottoming. The SC Legislature could create some problems but the City was in good shape in relation to its fuel budget (with gasoline and diesel prices half the level of 12 months ago)

We thought that Mr. Bedard was deserving of the standing ovation that lesser lights have enjoyed before City Council. Balancing the budget in these times is a challenge to say the least. After all, look at the pain the County is suffering trying to balance its budget. Of course 2009 has another 9 months to go and Mr. Bedard may have to come back with cap in hand. And again to say the least, Mr Bedard’s message is encouraging.

Awash with Grant money
As with most other Council meetings this year, there have been few things of substance on the agenda. Most of Council’s time has been taken up with “bread and butter” matters. The tight economy has reined in developers and we have not seen a controversial development project before Council for some time. For that matter, we haven’t seen a non controversial project either.

But there have been striking features in the agenda and for some of us, they are concerning – not for the City of Charleston but for the economy in general. I refer specifically to the large number of grants coming from Government and Government Agencies.

Applications on last night’s agenda
There were three applications on last night’s agenda, none of which were discussed but all unanimously approved. No matches by the City were required. The grants were
• For $210,197 from the SC Department of Public Safety to add 2 officers to the Police Department to augment the DUI task force
• For $307,962 from FEMA for the Fire Department. The City cited the cut in travel and training budgets in the department and the neee to educate the public over fire prevention.
• For $1.23 million through the Lowcounty Housing Trust (LHT) to “rehabilitate abandoned, vacant and dilapidated properties”. The grant was sought from SC Housing Finance and Development Authority (SCHFDA) which has received Federal funds for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program. A copy of a letter was included in the documents before Council last night from the LHT to the City. The LHT said that it had written to SCHFDA and requested $20 million. Of the total, $9 million was to serve Charleston County and $4.8 million (sic) was requested by the City of Charleston. The request was made to “assist with the growing number of foreclosed properties in the Tri County region.

The LHT submitted the addresses of 34 properties in the City which were part of this consideration. Interestingly, the owner of one of these properties, The Prime South Group, successfully sought a zoning change at last night’s Council meeting. The property was on the Westside at 76 Fishburne Street. The LHT letter says that “if awarded, the funds will be used to acquire, rehabilitate foreclosed properties……” The developer owns a number of properties in Charleston and certainly does not conform to the image of a struggling hard-working citizen squeezed out of his/her home because the tough economy. We just hope that we are not helping to bale out a developer.

Then there were the other Grants
It was not only these items that prompted our interest. It also was the Mayor’s comments at the conclusion of the meeting where he spoke of the City’s success or participation in procuring Federal Funds for projects. There were itemized for Council. These Funds flow, or will flow from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

• $286,702 Community Block Grant, to be of allocated for the construction of the energy-efficiency /LEED portions of the Arthur W. Christopher Community Center at Harmon Field.
• $3.071 million formula allocation to the Housing Authority of the City of Charleston, The CHA plans to use these funds to complete needed repairs to publicly owned housing in its jurisdiction. CHA also plans to apply for competitive funding to construct new public housing.
• $831,176 to Charleston County from HUD for homelessness prevention. The Crisis Ministries and the Lowcountry Continuum of Care will be eligible sub-recipients and can apply for a portion of that funding.
• $2.9 million to the City of Charleston from HUD for lead paint removal.
• $6.478 million formula grant from the Federal Department of Transportation to CARTA. Of the total, $4.75 million will go to buy new vehicles, $1 million for facilities maintenance and renovation, and $725,000 for bus shelter construction.
• $14.6 million allocation to the BCD COG for highway infrastructure. This grant will come via the state.
• $? formula allocation from the Department of Justice for Community Oriented Policing program. The City Police Department applied to cover the cost of 20 officers. The Federal Government will pay 100% of the cost for three years, and thereafter, the City will be responsible.
• $437,435 formula and competitive grants through the Department of Justice, from the Byrne Justice Assistance Program. The City plans to apply the funds to purchase surveillance cameras for high crime areas.
• $250,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts in a competitive grant The City is eligible for and plans to apply for the amount for a re-granting program to local arts groups to retain positions that are critical to an organization’s artistic mission.

And the City expects it will receive more grants! We are eating a “free lunch”. What will it cost and when will we have to pay?

Council member questions City on project funding
The only other item arising for yesterday’s meeting of interest was Council member Morinelli’s criticism of the City in relation to funding of capital projects. She specifically mentioned the Westchester Playground. The lighting of the property was approved some 5 years ago, yet it was never installed. Why not? She accused the City of delaying spending on many other projects.

Staff denied the accusation and the Mayor suggested that although the project may have been approved, no funding had been appropriated. There were many projects approved that awaited funding. Staff were to search the minutes of Council meetings ascertain what really happened.

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