A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
When local government spending tops out at something around $700 million, it’s hard to get excited about a couple million dollars, or an expenditure that is a mere fraction of 1 percent of the territory’s annual budget.
But as anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you: Little things can mean a lot.
In this case, it’s $1.9 million of federal funds in a single year channeled through the V.I. Housing Finance Authority to grassroots organizations on the front lines in the fight against homelessness and poverty in the territory.
The money went for things like afterschool programs for children in low to moderate income families, for soup kitchens, for job training and employment in agriculture and landscaping, and for housing and counseling for the mentally ill and for people affected by substance abuse.
The funds come from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development and are known as Community Development Block Grant funds. VIHFA also manages HUD funds for the Home Investments Partnership Program and the Emergency Solutions Grant (formerly Emergency Shelter Grant.)
The authority recently issued its federally mandated annual report on all three grant programs for the program year (2013) that ended Sept. 30, 2014.
According to the report, of the $1.9 million in CDBG funds allotted that year, all of them were committed to activities and projects, and $1.7 million was actually expended before the end of the year.
The HOME and ESG allocations are smaller. In the 2013 program year, the federal government allocated $639,983 in HOME monies to the Virgin Islands and $116,079 for ESG. The territory actually expended more than the allotment in both cases because it combined the money with funds from prior years or with program income.
Janine Hector, head of federal programs for VIHFA, said the agency has made vast strides in removing bureaucratic and other barriers that once slowed down the distribution of funds and the implementation of projects in the CDBG program.
A major change began in 2008 when the CDBG program was transferred to the Housing Finance Authority and when the authority was given more direct control over its administration.
“Two of the most significant reasons for the slow expenditure (of CDBG funds) which had been identified were the underfunding of projects resulting in delays in start-up and the cumbersome nature of the central government’s contractual, procurement and payment processes,” according the report.
As Hector explained, a sub recipient (or private, nonprofit group) has to enter into an agreement with the local government, which governs the grant money. In the old days, that agreement typically involved clearance in at least four different government entities, the department with oversight for the type of services being offered (probably Health, Education or Human Services) then the Department of Property and Procurement, the Justice Department and Government House.
In some cases, especially those involving construction, the funds are not disbursed all at once. So each draw-down entailed a similar round of approvals from various government entities.
Now it’s a one-stop process with the VIHFA handling it all.
As for underfunded projects, Hector said the authority has addressed that “by more careful vetting of projects as well as more closely monitoring projects.” It also offers considerable technical assistance, including workshops on how to apply for grants and how to meet reporting requirements. It even has inspectors to oversee construction projects, she said.
Before the restructuring, some government officials, including some senators, took the approach of funding as many proposals as possible. That method was well-intentioned, but often resulted in spreading the grant money so thin that it was meaningless; a $5,000 grant for a $15,000 program means the program is doomed to fail or, at best, to await additional funding in a future year.
The streamlining also applies to reprogramming funds. If for any reason, a project doesn’t spend all the funds allotted to it – maybe it failed to get off the ground and is being scrapped, or maybe it is running well, but simply doesn’t require the full grant – that money can be moved to another project.
Reprogramming used to require another trip back to the Legislature and “that can get to be cumbersome,” Hector said. While government staff would make recommendations, they required legislative approval.
There is still oversight, but now, VIHFA makes it recommendations and holds a public hearing to present them. There is just such a hearing scheduled for 5:45 p.m. Jan. 27 at the authority’s office in Demarara Plaza on St. Thomas.
Among the CDBG projects referenced in the report for the program year that ended last fall are:
– Afterschool programs designed to decrease truancy and drop-out rates and provide a “safe haven” for latch-key children;
– An Agri-Landscaping program at the Ten Thousand Helpers of St. Croix Inc. shelter;
– Construction of Catholic Charities outreach center and soup kitchen facility in Estate Friedenstahl on St. Croix;
– Renovation of a Catholic Charities property in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, for use as a soup kitchen and outreach center;
– Rehabilitation of a property in Christiansted by The Village-V.I. Partners in Recovery for transitional housing for persons recovering from substance abuse;
– Rehabilitation of Caribbean Museum in Frederiksted;
– Acquisition of a building adjacent to the Family Resource Center in St. Thomas to be rehabbed and to provide two units of transitional housing for victims of domestic abuse;
– Construction of a pavilion building and vendors kiosks at the Bordeaux Farmers Market;
– Rehabilitation of a soccer facility in Fredensborg St. Croix for the St. Croix Youth Soccer Inc.;
– Rehabilitation of the Sojourner Shelter, a safe house run by the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix;
– Construction of a new community center in Estate Mon Bijou, St. Croix.
Hector said applications for the current cycle of CDBG grants are available now through VIHFA and are due in by Feb. 27.
Typically the authority receives about 45 to 50 proposals annually territorywide, she said. By law, funds must be split equally between the two jurisdictions, St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John.
For more information and to view the full Consolidated Annual Performance Evaluation Report (CAPER) for program year 2013, go to www.vihfa.gov.