JOHNS CREEK, GA. – The Grinch came to Johns Creek early this year. The City Council voted 4-2 to return $250,000 earmarked to help the elderly, the handicapped and others in need because it incurred additional “risk” to the city.
But it is politics rather than frugality that won out in the long run.
The Community Development Block Grant is one of the longest running programs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It funds local community development, seeding programs that include affordable housing, jobs training, health and other anti-poverty efforts.
CDBG grants are significantly different from other government programs in that it they are made for specific purposes. They are subject to less federal oversight and give states, counties and communities broad discretion in how they are used.
The program does require rigorous documentation to show the funds are used for the purposes stated.
Thus Councilwoman Stephanie Endres pointed that the program generates a lot of paperwork for the city.
Mayor Mike Bodker said it does involve a slight risk to the city should the funds not be spent where they were supposed to be spent – i.e. to help Johns Creek residents. So while the risk is admittedly minimal, there is after all, no risk in turning down the grant.
Only Endres and Councilman Lenny Zaprowski voted no (Councilwoman Cori Davenport was absent). But Endres voted “no” only after her more stringent motion to permanently end the program failed.
Zaprowski said he did not understand why the city should deny local residents the opportunity to take part in this program.
There is not a population in Johns Creek sufficient to meet minimum CDBG requirements. Bodker noted there are no pockets of poverty by congressional district large enough to warrant few if any Johns Creek programs.
So in the past, the funds have been remanded to Fulton County to administer – that pesky paperwork again – and doled out to North Fulton’s charitable organizations which can and do serve those residents. In turn they must document every resident served to justify the outlay of funds.
Surplus funds are not sent off to other areas of Fulton County for disbursement.
Local nonprofit organizations such as North Fulton Charities, The Drake House, Senior Services North Fulton and HomeStretch – which had been serving Johns Creek – are affected. These four charitable institutions will not get to share in those funds now.
These nonprofit agencies do a tremendous amount of work for North Fulton’s working poor, the aged and the sick. The consequences fall directly on Johns Creek residents.
North Fulton Charities Executive Director Barbara Duffy said she has had to keep meticulous records then names and addresses of client served.
“We do have Johns Creek clients,” she said.
What does all this mean for these residents now?
They don’t participate in programs that provide food, shelter, rent aid and utility payment or a turkey at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“We find it is cheaper to keep families afloat for a while rather than let them fall all the way down,” she said. “It is better to help a family stay where they are than to find them shelter when they’re homeless.”
They don’t get to participate in bootstrap programs, such as HomeStretch, that gives families temporary housing until they can get back on their feet. The parents receive counseling and advice on budgeting, clothes for interviews and even help for the interview.
Maybe it’s just money for gas to get to a job or job interview.
Councilman Steve Broadbent was the most candid council member about ending the CDBG programs.
“No, there is no real risk to the city to allow one of these other agencies to serve Johns Creek citizens. It is just not a popular program with residents of this city. We just don’t need the distraction it brings,” Broadbent said. “If we had [supported participation] only a small portion of our residents would be helped.”
He said there is continued opposition, some of it for absurd reasons.
“Some people are afraid it would lead to section 8 federal housing [rent assisted affordable housing]. But that would never happen here, the land costs are too high. Right or wrong, the perception here is the reality.”
He said he would focus “100 percent” on the issues that matter in Johns Creek.
The option that council passed was to forgo the funding for three years, then the council could re-examine it. Maybe cooler heads – or warmer hearts – will prevail at that time.