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Miami Herald, July 29, 2001


By Beth Reinhard

Federal dollars intended for the county's poorest residents will buy upgrades to public facilities in some of Broward's wealthiest cities this year.

Community activists charge that the way some Community Development Block Grants are allocated violates the spirit, if not the letter of the 1974 anti-poverty law. They blame a county system that offers little oversight of cities eager to collect as much cash as possible for their projects.

The funding is supposed to ``either benefit low- and moderate-income persons, prevent or eliminate slums or blight, or meet other urgent community development needs.''

Among the criticized projects:

Turning a police station in the comfortable Rock Creek subdivision in Cooper City into a community center adjacent to a pool and tennis complex.

Building ramps, bathrooms and wide doorways for wheelchair users at a public building in the affluent city of Parkland. Civic associations, the city's genealogical society and the city's historical society meet in the building. The city also plans to register kids for sports teams and summer camp at the center.

Paying for computer training, meditation sessions, yoga classes, ping-pong games and other activities for seniors in the coastal town of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.

``This is supposed to be anti-poverty money, and instead local governments are using it to supplant general revenue funds,'' said John Ise of the South Florida Community Development Coalition, an umbrella group of 60 nonprofits in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. ``This process is not being driven by the needs of the poor, but by the budget needs of cities.''

County and city officials point out that the Cooper City, Parkland and Lauderdale-by-the-Sea projects are eligible for the federal money because under the law, elderly and disabled adults are presumed to have low incomes. While the community center in Cooper City will be open to all residents, it will offer activities for seniors.

``I'm disappointed that nonprofits are looking at this issue selfishly,'' said Cooper City Manager Chris Farrell. ``It sounds like sour grapes.''

Ise insisted that the issue is not who spends the money, but where it is spent and how.


The median family income in the three cities ranges from $48,700 in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea to $52,864 in Cooper City to $81,876 in Parkland -- significantly higher than the $36,801 countywide median, according to the 1990 Census. Parkland city officials say that the median income now surpasses $100,000.

``Poor people don't live in Parkland,'' said Janet Riley, a Fort Lauderdale attorney with Florida Legal Services, which represents low-income clients. ``Unfortunately, the parameters in the federal statute are very broad, and local governments are not prioritizing needs.''

The criticism is echoed throughout the nation by advocates for the poor, who contend that sorely needed community development money has been wasted on sports arenas, airport runways and museums.

``When push comes to shove, just about everything qualifies as an eligible activity,'' said Ed Gramlich, a community development specialist at the Center for Community Change in Washington. ``Maybe you couldn't build a county courthouse, but that's about the extent of the limitations.''


U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, D-Miami, is trying to change that. She is promoting a law that would require local governments to spend at least 80 percent of their community development money on low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. The current threshold is 70 percent.

The bill also would change the way local governments account for community development money.

Currently, the federal government requires that a community development project ``principally benefit'' neighborhoods in which at least 51 percent of the residents have low incomes. If a county spends $500,000 on road improvements in an area in which 51 percent of the residents are poor, the county can count the entire $500,000 toward the 70 percent benchmark.

Under Meek's proposal, the county would be able to count only 51 percent of that $500,000 -- the portion that actually benefits poor people -- toward the new 80 percent benchmark.


``Community Development Block Grant Funds are too often used for projects like reroofing government buildings or landscaping walkways, instead of constructing affordable housing or bringing jobs to inner-city neighborhoods,'' Meek said in a statement. ``My bill is designed to correct these problems and focus the program on the neediest areas.''

Another provision of Meek's bill would earmark some community development money to nonprofits that represent poor people.

That measure is of particular interest to nonprofits in Broward County, which complain that changes in the application process have virtually shut off the flow of community development money to them. Money awarded to nonprofits dipped from 17 percent of the county's bounty last year to 2 percent of the $5 million pot this year.

For many years, cities and nonprofits competed for the county's community development money. An advisory committee of city officials, representatives of unincorporated areas and County Commission appointees screened requests and recommended how to divvy up the funds.

``It became a political battle,'' said Riley, who served on the committee.

Arguments over where to locate affordable housing and rehabilitation centers also frayed relations between cities and nonprofits. And unlike for-profit businesses, nonprofits don't pay property taxes.

Cities tired of begging for community development money and losing out to nonprofits decided to bolt from the county's coalition and apply directly to the federal government. Cities with at least 50,000 people can seek their own grants.


County officials worried that as cities annexed unincorporated areas and started applying for their own community development money, the remaining population would dip below the required threshold of 200,000.

``If enough cities pulled out of the program, we wouldn't get the money,'' said County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman. ``Then what would everybody say?''

In order to placate the 16 remaining cities, the county came up with a new system in which nearly all of the money is divided according to their populations. The advisory committee was dismantled. All the cities need to do is submit applications to the county explaining how they plan to spend the money. County staff makes sure the projects conform to federal law.

``I think we're on the right track,'' said Ray Lubomski, the county's director of community development. ``Rather than dictate to the cities, they are able to determine themselves what they need.''

He added that the nonprofits should try to subcontract with cities for community development money. Lubomski said, ``They need to justify their existence to the cities and outline their services areas, and they are not used to that.''