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Miami New Times: 7/5/01


By Susan Eastman

Alphonso Branch is doing his part -- Monday through Friday, 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. -- as a janitor at the Culmer-Overtown Neighborhood Center. The sixteen-year-old varsity receiver and cornerback was there last week, broom in hand, flicking the detritus of a rainy Tuesday off the center's speckled-brown linoleum tile floor, depositing it in a dustpan, and dumping the contents into a bright yellow 55-gallon garbage container. When he finished that task, Branch hoisted green plastic chairs upside-down onto the top of conference tables in a meeting room.

For his labor the Booker T. Washington High School teen earns $5.15 per hour, the minimum wage. He will work 160 hours over the next eight weeks. When summer is over, the reticent Branch will have earned $824 before taxes, a sum he says, at least on that second day of work and two weeks away from his first paycheck, he plans to use to buy school clothes.

Alphonso's mother, Lashonda Grissom, is glad that three of her four teenagers got jobs this year through a special county summer jobs program funded with federal dollars. "They are getting to know what it's all about," she says. "They get to earn their own money. They can go and pick out their own things for school. They can work and learn responsibility, and they can see how hard it is." And Alphonso is glad, too, although not prone to verbal effusion as a budding man of few words. "I like it," he squeezes out between sweeps of the broom.

The money Branch earns this summer will buy more than a first taste of adulthood. And it will do more than help the Culmer Center look spanking clean. Branch also is helping Miami-Dade County and every poor and disadvantaged person in it. The money paid him is $824 less that the county must spend in order to unload 35.2-million neglected federal dollars by October 31. If the sum isn't spent, the federal government may decide to send less in the future. That would be a big deal because it would mean less money to help poor folks in Miami-Dade County.

Thank you from all of us, Mr. Branch.

Miami-Dade has a lot of poor people. The poverty rate had climbed to three times the national average by the 1990 census. Based upon the county's desultory income figures, Miami-Dade gets about $23 million yearly from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for economic-development projects and programs that will help moderate- and low-income residents. Although the new poverty rates aren't out yet for the 2000 census, the poverty levels in Miami-Dade probably haven't improved so dramatically that anyone is ready to let Washington send the money to another county.

But HUD doesn't just send money -- $23 million, year after year. It also expects the county to spend it. And that is where Miami-Dade, along with 157 other places nationally, have had a bit of trouble.

Federal law requires that the county have not more than 1.5 percent of the current grant left unspent from previous years by the time it gets a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) award for 2002. As of March 2001, Miami-Dade had $35.2 million more than that. Some of the projects were originally approved as far back as 1993, such as $315,000 to remove a barrier at the Community Action Agency office to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and $105,000 to buy land in South Miami. Nationally, there is a whopping $218 million lying around.

On April 11 the county's Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED), which administers CDBG dollars, got a scolding letter from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The letter reminded OCED that "the timely expenditure of funds remains a priority of the highest order to the Department," a directive that a HUD spokesman translated thusly: "It behooves everybody that the money out there gets used."

And that's where Alphonso Branch comes in.

Miami-Dade County aims to spend its $35.2 million quick. On April 24 the county commission unanimously approved a five-million-dollar summer jobs program. It is being administered through the South Florida Employment & Training Consortium, a nonprofit organization that already has a summer jobs program in place; both are paid for with federal dollars, channeled through the state, and the newer jobs program is being seen as an amplification more than a duplication. Go figure.

In any case, the money would hire 3000 teenagers from poor neighborhoods in Miami-Dade County to work 160 hours at the minimum wage. While the wages to be paid account for only $2.5 million, the other $2.5 million will be used to pay the employer's share of workers compensation and Social Security payments, job counseling, for supervisors to visit job sites, and for other administrative costs, says Joseph Alfano, executive director of the consortium.

Assuming 3000 kids are hired and the county spends the five million dollars by the end of August, that leaves another $30.2 million to get rid of. Rick Glasgow, OCED community development division director, says the county will do that several ways. OCED is setting up an $8- to $10-million floating-loan program for businesses "involved with" affordable-housing projects. The money would have to be paid back within two years. The OCED is also scheduling weekly meetings with organizations that have received CDBG grants to help work out obstacles to spending the money they have been allotted.

Those obstacles are myriad, Glasgow says, from not turning in reimbursement notices quickly to encountering stumbling blocks as an agency tries to get projects through the maze of county permits and approvals. Glasgow believes it also is necessary for the county to get tougher about who gets money. Some nonprofit development corporations simply may not have the ability to do the development projects they've proposed. "At some stage the county has to step up to the plate and defund some of these programs. That is a hard decision, and our failure to make those hard decisions in the past has gotten us to where we are today," Glasgow explains. "We need a more studied approach to allocation and a better monitoring of activities to make sure services are provided on a timely basis."

If the money isn't spent by October 31, the county may find that its CDBG allotment is reduced annually until the amount of unspent dollars reaches acceptable levels, says a HUD spokesman. "Hypothetically, the future year amount could be reduced up to the unexpended amount," the HUD spokesman explains. As of June 5, the county had $27 million in unexpended funds.

The five million dollars that will be used for the summer jobs program comes from a spate of projects the county funded that were not completed, including improvements to the Wynwood Neighborhood Service Center ($70,000 in 1996), the Little River Branch Library ($36,000 in 1999), and Opa-locka street improvements ($400,506 in 2000). Some citizens who attended the April 24 county commission meeting, where the five-million-dollar package was approved, endorsed employing area youth but didn't like the idea of using money that might have gone to economic development or other community improvements to do it. "They are taking economic-development dollars to fund a summer jobs program when there is too much of a need for economic development in the black community," gripes Leroy Jones, executive director of the Liberty City nonprofit Neighbors and Neighbors. "That money was supposed to help businesses that could have then hired someone to work year round instead of just for two months."

Others complain that the jobs program has a thrown-together-at-the-last-minute feel. In Overtown many youths didn't know about it, grumbles Irby McKnight, chairman of the Overtown Advisory Board. He got a call from an aide in county Commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler's office the night before the county was to be at the Culmer-Overtown Neighborhood Center on NW Third Avenue to do recruitment. "I didn't know anything about it, so I wondered if anyone else knew," McKnight says. "I've seen no signs, and I walk the streets everyday. And then when I asked people, nobody seemed to know anything about it." On his own initiative, McKnight printed up flyers and went door-to-door telling parents about the program. The following day, about twenty teens applied. When the City of Miami came to the Culmer Center to recruit, McKnight and three other community activists again went door-to-door in Overtown. During that session, the City of Miami took applications from another 71 Overtown teenagers.

McKnight also says nonprofits in Overtown that might have employed some of the teenagers weren't asked to participate in the program. At the Overtown Advisory Board meeting on June 23, Barbara Lloyd from the Jefferson Reaves, Sr., Health Center said the clinic would like to participate in the program. Later Dorothy Fields from the Black Archives and the Lyric Theater, also said that both facilities could use some of the young people. "Those are the kinds of experiences dreams are made of," McKnight says. Told that both were interested, Alfano says he will give the Black Archives and the Reaves clinic a call. "This is a work in progress," he says.

Despite McKnight's criticisms, as of June 27, the consortium had certified 2530 teens as eligible to work. McKnight is pleased so many Overtown youths found work, a phenomenon that he attributes to his own efforts. And he is glad Commissioner Carey-Shuler's office took the time to call. "I usually call them up [the county] and say, how dare they do that, use our demographics to get the funds and then not hire any of our children," McKnight says. "I say anything I can think of to rattle their souls. This time they were not going for that anymore, and I'm happy they remembered that; I'm proud they remembered, because it really made a difference."