President Donald Trump wants to eliminate funding for a community-assistance program that has provided more than $50 million to Tuolumne County over the past 30-plus years.
Trump released his first budget blueprint Thursday that calls for the elimination of the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant Program. The county has received funding from the program for a wide variety of projects and ongoing services that benefit low-income residents and homebound seniors.
“Our county relies on that money,” said Deputy County Administrator Maureen Frank. “It would be extremely unfortunate if these funds were to go away.”
Some of the projects funded by the program in the past 10 years include $2 million for sewer upgrades in the Jamestown and Gibbs Estates areas, more than $2 million for water-infrastructure projects in the Jamestown and Big Hill areas, and hundreds of thousands in studies that have helped small special districts in the county leverage money for other work.
The program also provides funding that supports ongoing services intended to help the disadvantaged and elderly, like the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency’s food bank and homeless outreach programs, a transitional home for foster youth, and the Sierra Senior Provider’s Meals on Wheels program.
In addition, CDBG grant have also helped fund economic development in the area like a $3 million loan as seed money to build the $40 million Rush Creek Lodge near Yosemite National Park and more than $1 million in small-business loans.
“It’s amazing how much CDBG has had an impact on the lives of so many people in Tuolumne County,” Frank said.
Frank said every $35,000 loaned through the program has created a job in the county. She also said the Rush Creek Lodge completed last year has created over 100 jobs.
The program, which has provided a total of more than $150 billion since it was established in 1974, is “not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results,” according to Trump’s 62-page budget blueprint.
Terry Cox, of Cox Consulting in Sonora, who has helped the county write applications for CDBG funding and manage the projects since 1982, called the claim that the money is not being used appropriately “absolutely false,” at least in the case of California.
“In California, it absolutely isn’t accurate because at least 51 percent of the money goes into housing exclusively for lower income people,” Cox said.
Cox is paid more than $100,000 a year, which comes from CDBG funds as opposed to the county’s General Fund, to oversee the county’s grant applications and make sure all of the money is being spent appropriately so the county can remain eligible for the next round of funding.
One of the eligibility requirements is that the person benefitting from the funding must earn no more than 80 percent of the county’s median income level, which would currently be $34,000 for a single-person household and $48,550 for a family of four.
Cox said this isn’t the first time the program has been on the chopping block when administrations want to cut domestic spending, as Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have pledged to do.
“They’ve managed to avoid that because it has been very popular in all 50 states,” Cox said. “I wouldn’t expect this to be the last word on it.”
The City of Sonora also regularly applies for grants through the program during every two-year funding cycle.
Most recently, the city received a $1 million grant to complete a waterline and fire-hydrant replacement project that increased flows for fire protection in certain residential areas. Another was a $700,000 grant for a multi-family housing project for low-income residents on Stewart Street.
City Administrator Tim Miller said the city has also received funding through the program for rehabbing old homes and loans for first-time homebuyers.
“(Eliminating the program) would impact us because it limits opportunities for us to provide things that we can’t otherwise afford in our budget,” Miller said. “The president has his own priorities for funding that are different than what’s happened in the past. It’s more directed to military spending and veterans services and other programs, but the money has to come from somewhere.”
Trump’s proposed budget outline calls for increasing the Defense Department’s budget by $54 billion, or 10 percent.
Some of the largest budget cuts include more than $12 billion from the Department of Health and Human Services, $11 billion from the State Department, nearly $5 billion from the Agriculture Department, and $6.2 billion from the Housing and Urban Development Department, which administers the CDBG program.
Rajeev Rambob, executive director of the Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency, described the impact that the program’s elimination would have on ATCAA’s services and operations as “enormous.”
Rambob said the primary funding source for ATCAA’s food bank and housing programs come from CDBG grants. Last year, the food bank served more than 4,100 households in the tri-county area, or about 10,670 individuals.
“Zeroing out CDBG funds would be, in a word, devastating,” he said.
Rambob said another issue is that the area’s relatively small population, which is largely lower to middle income will make it difficult to bridge the funding gap through private sources when compared with places like the Bay Area or New York City.
The agency also employs about 150 people, whose jobs could be at risk if the funding is lost.
“Larger nonprofits or public service programs that have more diversified funding streams are in far better shape than entities like us, where a heavy percentage relies on these funds to operate,” Rambob said.
Meals on Wheels
Another program that would face significant impacts if CDBG funding is eliminated is the Meals on Wheels program, which delivers hot meals to frail and homebound seniors 60 and older suffering from illness, disability or isolation.
Headlines splashed across websites Thursday morning claimed that Trump’s blueprint calls for cutting the national Meals on Wheels program as well, but the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging issued a statement that afternoon saying that wasn’t the case.
“This $3 billion cut would eliminate CDBG funding to states to use for a variety of programs including a small amount that a few states and communities direct toward shoring up senior nutrition programs such as home-delivered meals,” the association stated.
“However,” the statement continued, “this cut does not mean that the federal home-delivered meals program under the Older Americans Act was slated for elimination. Those details are not available in the current budget blueprint, but news reports of the CDBG cut have led to confusion among advocates and the public.”
Sierra Senior Providers, which administers the Meals on Wheels program in Tuolumne County, received about $77,000 through the CDBG program to supplement its funding for home-delivered meals and those served at centers in Sonora, Tuolumne, Groveland and Jamestown.
Leon Casas Jr., CEO of Sierra Senior Providers, said about 490 clients receive home-delivered meals through the program. About 190 meals are delivered per day, all of which must meet California Department of Aging nutrition guidelines.
The total budget for providing the meals, which includes vehicle repairs and fuel for about 20 to 30 volunteer and part-time drivers, is about $580,000 combined.
Casas said about $355,000 of the budget for the meal programs comes from federal sources including CDBG, while the remaining $225,000 largely comes from private fundraisers and donations.
Coming up with the additional $77,000 a year to plug up the gap wouldn’t be easy, according to Casas.
“It would be a very significant impact for our Meals on Wheels program,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge to find funding sources to replace those funds.”
In addition to providing meals, the drivers also develop a relationship with the clients — many of whom live in isolation because they can’t get out of their house and have little or no support from family — so they can alert Sierra Senior Providers if there is a medical issue or other problem.
Jamestown resident Frank Meckler, 85, who has been a volunteer Meals on Wheels driver for the past 11 years, said about half of the roughly 20 to 30 people on his weekly route are living by themselves without relatives close by to help if needed.
Meals on Wheels America issued a statement Thursday afternoon expressing concern not about proposed elimination of the CDBG program, but the nearly 18 percent cut to the Department of Health and Human Services’s budget.
The department provides about 35 percent of the funding for local Meals on Wheels programs through the Older American Act, according to the statement. On top of that, the national network is delivering 23 million fewer meals a year than in 2005 due to stagnated funding coupled with increasing demand.
“It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the budget is enacted and these critical services would not be significantly impacted,” according to the statement. “We fear that the millions who rely on us every day for a nutritious meal, safety check and visit from a volunteer will be left behind.”