Infusion of money could boost city programs

Marietta’s development director plans to ask city council this month to allocate more grant funding to a trio of programs designed to help residents and, by extension, their neighborhoods and the city itself.

Development Director Andy Coleman wants to bring back a sidewalk repair program, while expanding the scope of the Paint Marietta and Emergency Repair programs. He said the changes are motivated by state requirements for how the city uses its Community Development Block Grant funds and a desire to increase participation in the programs.

A July audit of the city’s use of CDBG funds by the Columbus field office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development noted that Marietta was spending more money on administration of housing programs – contributing to the salaries and benefits for Coleman and the department’s clerk – than it was on the programs themselves.

“For every dollar that we were putting into the housing program, we were spending more than a dollar administering them,” he said. “They recommend you should be at a minimum dollar for dollar.”

There was no citation in the audit, and there’s no hard and fast rule against exceeding that ratio, but Coleman said it could increase the chances of the funding being cut or even eliminated.

A maximum of 20 percent of the city’s CDBG allocation – $345,743 for the current fiscal year – can be used on administration. Other projects the city funded with CDBG money, such as work on Fort Harmar Drive, met qualifications for its use, but less was spent directly on housing projects than the administrative costs, about $69,000.

Coleman’s budget proposal will not reduce administrative costs, but will raise to $77,000 the amount spent on housing programs. To help accommodate that, Coleman said the engineering department has agreed to request $35,000 for matching funds to repave streets, as opposed to $67,000 this year.

That would mean 89 cents is being spent on administration for every dollar on housing programs, and Coleman said he eventually would like to see the ratio reduced to 75 cents for every dollar.

Coleman will submit his proposals to council later this month, based on the current year’s amount, although the actual total won’t be known until sometime between May and June of 2014.

The sidewalk program was discontinued a few years ago due to lack of participation. Sidewalks are the responsibility of property owners, but the program covered 50 to 75 percent of the cost of repairing them, with the property owner paying for the rest.

“We would like to make it a 100 percent match for CDBG-eligible neighborhoods and low-to-moderate-income residents,” Coleman said. “We think that would be a very helpful program to eliminate slum and blight.”

An area is CDBG-eligible when at least 70 percent of its residents qualify as low-to-moderate income. There are currently four neighborhoods in Marietta that meet that criteria – Harmar, Norwood, the central business district and Indian Acres.

Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward and chairman of council’s finance committee, said that while sidewalk repairs are technically residents’ responsibility, many won’t or simply can’t spend the money to fix them.

“Getting the sidewalk fixed is not a top priority for people when they’re worried about feeding themselves or” meeting other needs, he said.

The Paint Marietta program pays for paint and supplies to repaint houses of low-to-moderate-income residents, but the city usually doesn’t have many takers on that either.

“If you’re talking to an elderly person or a disabled person that’s low-to-moderate income, they’re not going to be able to go out and paint their house,” Vukovic said.

Coleman is proposing increasing the budget for the paint program from $2,000 this year to $20,000 to cover materials and labor to paint five houses. He’s also asking the city to dedicate a little more money toward advertising the program.

Vukovic said the program improves the quality of life and housing in a neighborhood, benefiting more than just the residents in the house that’s painted. He noted the city also has a program to demolish dilapidated homes.

“If you look around the community, we’ve lost a lot of houses,” he said. “I’d rather spend the money on getting a house painted than on tearing it down.”

The city’s emergency repair program covers things like fixing a roof or furnace or replacing a broken air conditioner in the heat of summer. It’s currently budgeted for two projects a year at $4,000 each. Coleman is suggesting funding six projects a year at $5,000 each.

Vukovic said this program protects property values and more, since a faulty furnace or lack of air conditioning can affect people’s health.

“We’re talking about saving lives here, too,” he said.