Our View: Block grant process needs an overhaul
When doing things the way you've always done them produces a less-than-desirable outcome, the easy thing to do is shrug your shoulders and say, "Oh well."
The right thing to do is to say "Hold on. Can't we do better?"
So, we commend the Rochester City Council, which on Monday decided to delay its decision on how to distribute $550,000 in federal block grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The delay was pretty much agreed upon during the council's committee-of-the-whole meeting on Monday afternoon, but council member Bruce Snyder, speaking during the regular meeting that same might, made a point of informing the public as to why this delay was happening.
"The reason we're going to continue this is we had a brief discussion today at the committee-of-the-whole meeting that perhaps the way we've gone through deciding who gets what amount isn't necessarily the best method," he said. "We want to take some time and have further discussion of what method we use to determine the amounts that will be distributed to the participants."
The current process is indeed an interesting one. The city receives requests from many groups, which this year included Camp Olson YMCA, the United Way of Olmsted County, The Boys & Girls Club of Rochester, Hiawatha Homes, the Rochester Senior Center and a dozen more. The requests totaled nearly $1.4 million — so obviously, some organizations are going to be disappointed.
Each council member suggested allocations totaling $550,000, but they divided it up in very different ways. Sandra Means and Bob Nowicki (now replaced by Mark Hickey) suggested giving large awards to relatively few groups, giving the nod to just five of 19 applicants. On the other end of the spectrum is Snyder, who recommended smaller allocations to 13 groups — what we'll call the "spread the wealth" approach.
A proposal needs four votes in order to be considered for funding. For those that do, the suggested allocations are totaled, then divided by seven.
Consider the example of United Way, which asked for $64,000 in block grant funds. Five of the seven council members chose to fund it, at levels ranging from $30,000 up to the full $64,000. But when totaled and averaged, the United Way's award would be just $28,700 — less than the amount suggested by all five of council members who supported its application.
Or consider the Senior Center, which asked for $250,000 and was funded by three council members at levels of at least $100,000. If just one other council member had offered a token $100 to the Senior Center, it would be on track for a $50,000 grant.
That's far less than the requested $250,000, but it's a lot better than nothing.
But the biggest problem is much more obvious; namely, the council's current system resulted in awards that totaled just $417,900, leaving more than $132,000 "on the table," so to speak. When you have nearly $1.4 million in requests for $550,000, it makes sense to distribute the full amount, doesn't it?
When the council meets on Monday, it will have a lot of options. It simply could take the remaining funds and figure out how to share it among groups that got at least two or three "votes" in the first allocation process. Or the council could do a full do-over, laying out new procedures. It might even take a long look at its block grant philosophy, determining whether it's better to sprinkle the money throughout many organizations or to fully fund just a few major projects that will have the biggest impact on the community.
Regardless, we're glad that some rethinking is taking place, and we're confident the new block grant process, whatever it is, will be better than the current one.