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Trump budget would leave large gaps across East Texas

By Glenn Evans
March 18, 2017 at 11:36 p.m.

Morton Construction installs a new water line along Wylie Street on Friday March 17, 2017. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

Federal housing grant programs that have delivered more than $30 million to Longview since 1988 are on the chopping block in President Donald Trump's proposed budget — but are only one local example of the impacts that would be felt if his plan were passed.

The president's budget envisions 20 percent to 30 percent cuts from housing, diplomatic, environmental, health, arts and labor programs. Analysis of the proposal shows it would have wide-ranging effects on East Texas programs that feed and house the elderly and poor, provide tutoring for low-income students and help build roads. In some cases, local officials said, the cuts would mean more burden could fall to local or state taxpayers to fill gaps in needed programs.

"The only thing I can think of here is that the new administration may be ill-informed about the impact of a lot of these cuts on rural America," said David Cleveland, executive director of the East Texas Council of Governments, which represents 14 area counties and is involved in disbursing state and federal funds to a variety of programs.

In one local example of the sorts of intricacies highlighted by the budget, a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant in the past year was used to widen U.S. 69 through the East Texas town of Wells to four lanes to accommodate the hurricane evacuation route north from the coast.

A $2.3 million USDA grant was available for that public safety project, but those funds could not be used to move natural gas lines along the 3-mile highway stretch, a necessary part of the widening project.

But, Cleveland said, $700,000 was available to move the lines through the U.S. Housing and Urban Development's long-running Community Development Block Grant program — which Trump is proposing eliminating outright.

"We did the ribbon-cutting on U.S. 69, and (the Texas Department of Transportation) is beginning the construction phase," he said. "That ($700,000) was a piece of the $3 million pie to get the whole job done."

The president also has proposed a $4.7 billion cut from the USDA, which administers food stamps and other nutrition programs for families.

The $17.9 billion USDA budget request is 21 percent less than its current level and envisions closing county level USDA offices. A message left Friday afternoon at the USDA's Rural Development office in Henderson, possibly the nearest local arm of the federal agency, was not immediately returned.

But key USDA programs provide housing loans, guarantee business and industry loans, as well as single-family home repair loans.

Cuts proposed for the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department might be the most wide-ranging and include an as-yet unknown impact on the Meals on Wheels program that feeds elderly and disabled people, many of whom are too infirm to travel to eat or buy groceries.

Meals on Wheels

"It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which they will not be significantly and negatively impacted if the president's budget were enacted," national Meals on Wheels spokeswoman Jenny Bertolette said Thursday.

Cuts would affect thousands of people in East Texas, Cleveland said.

He said the Meals on Wheels program ETCOG administers served nearly 437,000 meals to 3,355 people during the 2015-16 fiscal year, the most recent year for which data is available. That included home delivered dinners to 2,330 East Texans, he said.

The total cost for the program that year exceeded $1.8 million. And though the preliminary federal budget was not clear on its effects on Meals on Wheels, Cleveland said there is no room to spare.

"The Meals on Wheels program is pretty critical to seniors," he said. "The vast majority of the Meals on Wheels funds that come from the federal government go to homebound senior citizens that have limited ability to get out on their own. So the only human touch some of these seniors get is from those home deliveries."

Cleveland made clear the budget plan envisions cuts he can support. For example, he said he's "all for cutting the EPA."

"They've been very aggressive and have hurt us in our cities," Cleveland said of the agency charged with protecting the environment.

Regarding other cuts, he cited the federal General Accounting Office's latest report on waste, fraud and abuse.

"There are certain areas that you can cut," Cleveland said. "But why do you go after cuts to funds that are critical to life in rural communities? ... Sometimes, the government does something that's actually good."

The most dramatic HUD cut might be Trump's elimination of a popular grant program that's paved streets, built community centers and helped nonprofit groups fulfill their missions for decades.

CDBG's wide impact

Created nationwide in 1974, the Community Development Block Grant program provides money for a range of community improvement projects, from resurfacing streets to addressing blight and substandard housing — two areas in which Longview has leaned heavily on the funds in its efforts to address poverty and crime.

Cleveland said ETCOG distributes $2 million to $3 million in CDBG grants annually.

Since 1988, more than $24.6 million worth of projects have been funded with CDBG money in Longview, records provided by city spokesman Shawn Hara showed.

CDBG funds are received through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, from which the president proposes cutting $6 billion from its $46.9 billion 2016-17 spending level.

In addition to city projects such as street work or home rehabilitation, CDBG money also is funneled to nonprofit organizations that focus on housing and related issues.

Longview programs

Locally, they include Habitat for Humanity, the D.O.R.S youth program, Longview Child Development Center, Preservation Longview, Community Connections, SeeSaw day care, Community HealthCore and the Arc of Gregg County.

"CDBG funds, through the city of Longview, are a major portion of both our building and repair programs here," said LaJuan Hollis, executive director of Longview Habitat for Humanity. "If next year's funding is eliminated, it will be a really bad thing for our Habitat program. We have approximately 15 to 20 home repairs (annually) for the elderly and disabled. We use CDBG money for every new home. It would probably result in one-and-a-half fewer homes being built next year."

The city's latest CDBG allocation from HUD was $584,468, Hara said.

Ongoing projects using the money include a $157,200 water quality improvement project on Rayburn and Wylie streets.

That CDBG-aided job serves 68 residents in 50 moderate income and 37 very low income households, city records show.

"We certainly use them locally," Hara said of the grants, saying the funds have fueled projects in the South Longview Improvement District. "It is our CDBG-designated area."

Mayor Andy Mack was out of town when reached Thursday and said he had not seen anything about the cuts.

His initial reaction to potential cuts was that the city would meet its obligations to its residents. He mostly hoped for time to devise a suitable response.

"We do quite a bit with CDBG funds," Mack said. "We'll always manage, because we don't have a choice. We can't whine or complain. Hopefully, if (the budget) does pass or goes into effect, it will give us some grace period of time to prepare for it."

The CDBG cuts represent half of $6 billion Trump proposed removing from HUD spending. Another $1.1 billion is slashed from three housing programs including HOME Investment Partnerships.

Longview received almost $216,000 in HOME funds this fiscal year.

HOME program grants have amounted to $7.7 million in Longview since 1995, records provided by Hara show.

Other cuts

Other cuts in the president's proposal include $4.2 billion slashed from education, of which the Texas State Teachers Association says $328 million will affect learning in the Lone Star State.

That includes $183.2 million removed from a Supporting Effective Instruction program that hires and retains teachers, especially in rural, underserved areas.

Another $103.2 million would be erased from a before- and after-school program that continues during summer months, while Supplemental Educational Opportunity grants, which provide $4,000 a year to eligible undergraduate college students, loses $41.7 million in Texas.

"I guess the good news in this process is, we're at the very, very beginning," ETCOG's Cleveland said. "And this information is going to get to the administration, and hopefully ... they'll be able to adjust their strategy and go after programs that are a waste."

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