By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Waiting for the city to fix your street? Waiting for them to help your elderly neighbors with basic home repairs? To do anything at all to improve your neighborhood?
Don't hold your breath.
The money's there--$22 million in federal funds. The problem is, the city council and the mayor have better things to do with it, mainly pork-barrel projects for well-wired special interests.
Before the recent city council election, Mayor Ron Kirk and a slew of council candidates all talked big about getting "back to basics," focusing on potholes instead of on big-ticket luxury deals like a new sports arena and the 2012 Olympics bid. They all said they had heard the voice of the people. Two weeks after the election, they're deaf again.
The biggest chunk of easy money for neighborhoods is the $22 million community development block grant--budget-free money from the federal government, with a stated legal purpose of helping decaying neighborhoods.
At the first official council hearing on the CDBG budget a week ago, the back-to-basics thing was already in the ditch. First of all, fully a third of the CDBG money that is supposed to go straight into curbs, gutters, potholes, and fire stations is going instead to the coffers of a handful of nonprofit agencies.
Rather than spending the cash on street repairs, for example, the proposed budget calls for giving away $100,000 to the African-American Men of Peace, a southern Dallas nonprofit that works with young people. The line item in the budget calls for the city to make the donation to AAMP for a "building expansion."
In reality, according to a spokesman for AAMP, the money will help the organization move out of the back of a church, where it now has its offices, into a new proposed $1 million office and sports complex a block away.
The budget also calls for giving twice that amount, $200,000, to the Artist and Elaine Thornton Foundation for the Arts to convert an abandoned industrial building into a light manufacturing facility and school of theater arts.
Other groups in store for major gifts from the city are Kathy's Sunshine Outreach Center, Inc., down for $100,000; The Alameda Heights Community Outreach Center, for $175,000; the Dallas Life Foundation, for $100,000; and Fahim Minkah's Southern Skates roller-rink.
Southern Skates has already received a million dollars in CDBG money from the city to build a private nonprofit rink for inner-city kids. This year's $60,000 is for the skates.
In all, if this budget stands as proposed, a handful of nonprofits will rake in $750,000 from the city's 1999-2000 CDBG funds. One of the biggest stumbling blocks in any back-to-basics campaign, in a city with an estimated $3 billion backlog of infrastructure repairs, is that major repairs can wipe out poor homeowners. That's because the city, by law, must assess property owners for a stiff share of the cost of adjacent street and alley repairs.
Since poorer homeowners could be forced out of their neighborhoods by costly new alleys and curbs, they seldom petition to get the work done. That's why one of the major aims of the whole CDBG program is to give grants to poor neighborhoods and help them pay off their street-repair assessments.
In this year's $22 million citywide proposed CDBG budget, what's the amount proposed to help poor homeowners shoulder the cost of back-to-basics streets repairs?
That's less than what they want to give away for roller skates.
At last week's hearing, a few council members did seem struck by the enormity of what was being proposed. Lois Finkelman questioned the basic drift in recent years of hundreds of thousands of dollars in so-called public improvement funds to non-profits ($300,000 last year to the Urban League alone for its new building).
She raised an interesting point: Most of the money isn't even going into programs carried out by the nonprofits to help people. It's going for new buildings to house the nonprofits. So what if the nonprofits go out of business?
"We are spending public taxpayer dollars in the private sector with no guarantee," Finkelman said, "that those dollars will continue to be out there with an organization or an entity that is going to continue to provide the same kind of services. In other words, if they go under, those bricks and mortar dollars are gone, and there is no benefit to the public."
The Dallas Observer asked Karen Bradford, the city official in charge of all this money, if the city does any kind of due diligence checkup on nonprofits in line for major CDBG grants. Bradford said the nonprofits fill out an application for money. Later in the process, after the city council has approved them for a grant, the nonprofits provide some financial information as part of actually signing a contract with the city.
At first Bradford said she would fax a list of the nonprofits that have applied for money in recent years along with their applications, and she indicated that the Observer would be able to view the contracts and backup financial declarations.
Later, Bradford called to say the Observer would have to talk to the city attorney about looking at the financial information or the contracts. Still later, she said by fax that she would not be able to provide even the names of organizations in time for this story that have been granted money in the past, let alone those that have applied and been turned down.