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Block Grant Program Needs to Spend Funds ASAP, Official Says

Feb. 13, 2007 — Delays in spending millions of federal dollars may put the local Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program in jeopardy, program director Laurence Joshua said during Tuesday's Committee of the Whole hearing.
Joshua explained that $4 million in unspent funds — or two years' worth of federal block grant money — has to be used by August, or the office will have to answer to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Joshua said the program, administered under the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, has "historically" had problems with spending the federal funds. However, efforts made to expedite existing projects have been stymied by delays in obtaining construction plans, finding contractors and getting contracts approved by the Department of Property and Procurement, he said.
"Since all of the funding we have right now has been obligated (to various projects, programs and community organizations), we can't arbitrarily take the funding away because of these delays," Joshua explained. "We are trying to expedite the projects we have now, but we can't spend the $4 million unless we reprogram the funds to fast-moving projects, such as the acquisition of land."
During the meeting, Joshua requested that senators reprogram funds already approved for a few community projects — including the construction of a community center and cafetorium at the Guy Benjamin School on St. John.
In a hearing held last August, senators voted to amend a CDBG bill sent down by former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull. Since Turnbull had proposed that the Guy Benjamin funds be redirected to the Methodist Training and Outreach Center, former Sen. Craig W. Barshinger introduced an amendment appropriating $250,000 from the General fund for the center's project, leaving the school's funds intact (See "Senate Puts Girl Scouts Camp, Guy Benjamin Cafetorium Back on Track").
However, Joshua testified on Tuesday that DPNR recently discovered that the General Fund money has already been allocated to the Methodist Training and Outreach Center, which will use the money to purchase a building for the homeless.
"Since swapping the funds is no longer an option, we are recommending an outright reprogramming of the CDBG funds from Guy Benjamin to the Methodist Outreach project," Joshua said. "It should be noted that Guy Benjamin will be left with approximately $100,000 to complete the plans and specifications."
While Joshua added that the Guy Benjamin project has been stalled for "at least two years," he also explained that money to complete the facility will be allocated from future CDBG funds.
At-Large Sen. Carmen Wesselhoft told Joshua that the school is ready to go forward with the project. "In speaking with the principal of Guy Benjamin, plans and specs were donated for the cafeteria," she said. "So we are ready to move forward; we're just waiting for the Commissioner of Education to sign off on the project."
Joshua assured senators that Guy Benjamin was on the department's list of priority projects.
Joshua also requested other changes be made to previously approved CDBG funds, including:
–the reprogramming of funds for Our Town Frederiksted, so that the organization can restore a building and use it for office space;
–the reprogramming of funds for Ten Thousand Helpers, so that the organization can purchase a building in Frederiksted and use it to provide services to the homeless;
–appropriating an additional $20,000 from the 2005 CDBG grant to Housing, Parks and Recreation to improve the Midre Cummings Ball Field.
While senators said they would consider the requests during an upcoming legislative session, they also asked Joshua whether DPNR had plans to improve the CDBG program, making sure that federal funds are spent in a "timely manner."
Joshua said the department is looking at implementing a two-phase application process. "The first, year, when the applicant comes before us for money, they would have to present the plans and specs," he explained. "During the second year, the applicant will receive the money."
In a second Committee of the Whole hearing, held Tuesday evening, senators also considered a series of rezoning requests, all of which had previously come before the 26th Legislature. According the Senate President Usie R. Richards, the hearing was called to familiarize newly elected senators with the proposals.
Since the Committee of the Whole is unable to take formal action on any bills or requests that come before the Legislature, the rezonings have to be sponsored by a senator, incorporated into a bill and voted on by the full Senate body.
Requests considered Tuesday include:
–rezoning two parcels of land located in the Bovoni landfill from R-1 (residential low density) to I-2 (light industry);
–rezoning land near Tutu Park Mall from A-1 (agricultural zone) to P (public) to allow for the construction and operation of a public library and record center;
–rezoning land in Smith Bay from R-2 (residential low density) to B-2 (business- scattered/secondary neighborhood) to allow for the construction of a shopping center with retail and office rentals; and
–rezoning land in Estate Tutu from R-2 (residential- low density) to B-2 (business- scattered/ secondary neighborhood) to allow for the construction of another Plaza Extra Supermarket. For more information on this rezoning, (See "Plaza Extra Supermarket Zoning Request Sparks Complaints").
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