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Agency asks feds to investigate Portland's allocation of community development funds

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Agency asks feds to investigate Portland's allocation of community development funds

PORTLAND — A local nonprofit agency is accusing the city of ignoring the needs of low-income and minority residents and has asked the federal government to investigate the city's allocation of bonus community development funds it recieved as part of the federal stimulus package.

Paul Young, a consultant for the Center for African Heritage, said the city's recent decision to spend Community Development Block Grant funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on projects that include installing a new elevator at the Irish Heritage Center and a new roof at the Abyssinian Meeting House shows "cavalier indifference" on the part of the city. The CDBG recovery funds, or CDBG-R funds, are a one-time opportunity.

The city received $570,000 of the bonus funding and is proposing using it for capital improvement projects.

"These funds need to be targeted at foreclosed homes, displaced workers and economic development," Young said. City officials, though, say the funds need to be used for projects that can happen right away.

The city receives regular CDBG funds every year. In a months-long selection process, it decides which nonprofits will receive funding. The city also funds capital improvement projects with CDBG money. There are guidelines regulating how the money can be spent, including that the bulk of it must go to programs and projects that benefit low-income families and neighborhoods.

The city received 59 applications this year from organizations requesting regular CDBG funding. One of the applicants that did not get funding was the Center for African Heritage, which requested $35,000 for its organic farming program. The program, which targets low-income and immigrant children, provides training in organic farming on land in Falmouth.

Young said while he believes the city has shown a pattern of failing to use CDBG funds for programs and projects that benefit low-income residents or neighborhoods, he did not take issue with the city's regular allocations process this spring.

But the city's allocation of CDBG-R funds, he said, was flawed.

"Our program provides training, a wage and job placement," Young said. "I think this project is a natural for funding."

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Young asked HUD investigate the city for misappropriation of CDBG-R funds, accusing Portland of squandering money on self-dealing projects. The letter was also sent to the White House, U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.

"City officials actually proposed recovery funding for a skate park," Young said.

The additional CDBG-R funds the city received last month had slightly different guidelines, and city officials said the federal government had strongly encouraged cities to use the funds for "shovel-ready" projects.

"The criteria was, 'how can we create the biggest impact?'" said Penny Littell, Portland's director of Planning and Urban Development. She said the city did not have time to open up a new application and selection process because the federal government gave the city just a couple weeks to compile and submit a proposal.

"Mr. Young's organization is not the only one that did not get funded," Littell said. "We'd love to fund all the projects."

Young, however, said he was misled by city staff, who told him the Center for African Heritage could get recovery funding for one of its other programs, a weatherization training program that targets military veterans.

"Once the funds became available, we were told only shovel-ready projects would be accepted," he said. "This is a job training, creation and placement program. Two of our graduates are writing business plans to start their own (companies)."

He said the city has not spent its regular CDBG money on its poorest neighborhoods, including East Bayside and West Bayside. 

"Families in Bayside don't need a new Bayside Trail this year," Young said in a previous statement. "But they do need training for long-term employment at a living wage."

Littell said the city is proposing to use the CDBG-R funding for field repair on Douglass Street, next to the West School.

"Lots of low- and moderate-income folks use those fields," she said.

The Center for African Heritage is a 5-year-old organization, which gained nonprofit status last year. The president of the organization is Dawud Ummah. Young said that the organic farming program began as a family program, where kids and their parents would learn organic farming and also how to raise livestock on a farm in Cumberland. Twenty-five individuals have gone through the program. The weatherization training program, which began last year, has had 10 participants.

The center's new organic farming program is for teenagers. The 10 kids selected for the program this summer are immigrants currently living in Bayside or Riverton, Young said. They will spend three months farming and rehabilitating a barn in Falmouth.

"Those kids are earning $230 a week," Young said. "After three months, that money will have increased their family's income 25 percent."

The goal is to place the participants at organic farms or nurseries.

Young said the center has supporters, including nearly 300 people who signed a petition showing support for the farming and weatherization programs. He said the petition would be sent to HUD.

The center expects to get a response from HUD within 30 days. Young said he hopes the federal government will tell the city it cannot spend recovery funds on elevators and roofs.

Young said the center has not ruled out a separate lawsuit, and added that while he does not like to play the "race card," he questions whether the city is biased against programs in the African community.

"We're going to keep on plugging away," he said. "There is no way this pattern can continue. It is a misuse of funding."

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net