As the East Lansing City Council shifts its approach to using U.S. Dept. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grant funds, looking now to fund more social services than before, the Council held its first public hearing on a proposal for next fiscal year’s use of the funds on April 27. A second public hearing will be held this coming Tuesday, May 11, followed by a vote on the matter on May 25.
One question raised by City Council members at the first hearing was why none of the eligible social service agencies showed up to weigh-in on the issue.
The funds available to the City of East Lansing come in the form of Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) dollars, provided by HUD. The proposal for the use of $493,938 (the next fiscal year’s anticipated funding level) by City staff recommends allocating money for nonprofit social service organizations, sidewalks and parks improvements, private home repairs and upgrades for people on the lower end of the income spectrum, and City staff’s labor related to the grant.
The recommendation offered to Council of possible grant recipients and amounts of CDBG funding was produced by East Lansing’s Community Development and Engagement Manager, Amy Schlusler-Schmitt and several other City staff.
The four organizations staff recommended for allocations are the East Lansing homeless shelter Haven House, Tri-County Office on Aging’s Meals on Wheels program, the Lansing-based domestic violence assistance organization EVE, and MSU’s relationship violence and stalking assistance program, Safe Place.
Council Member Dana Watson noted the proposal allocates 15% of the grant funds to social services, which is the maximum amount allowed by HUD for distribution to external social services agencies. But she asked why no representatives from organizations appeared at the meeting.
“So, we send out notification that there’s this money available, and the processes to maybe write in or come to a public hearing and nobody’s here,” Watson said at the April 27 meeting.
Watson added that allocations this year are higher than in the past, so she asked that more background information be provided to organizations.
Schlusler-Schmitt told Council that staff had reached out to previous grant recipients and shared information about the proposal and funding opportunities for projects, while City Manager George Lahanas told Council that in the past more representatives from organizations attended the second hearing.
Schlusler-Schmitt also said it is likely there will be additional participation from organizations at next Tuesday’s meeting. She said the Tri-County Office on Aging’s Meals on Wheels program confirmed it would send a statement or have a representative attend the second hearing, and Haven House sent a thank-you message.
Responding to Watson’s concerns, Mayor Aaron Stephens said that more public discussion on the process of allocations may be necessary.
“I’m happy to do that, because I was involved in that process as well, and I think that we got a lot of good input,” Stephens said. “I think that we heard a lot about different organizations, it’s a very hard process quite frankly.”
Council Member Ron Bacon said that, for future allocations, it is important for the City to be intentional about allocations to ensure a diversity of services are offered.
Watson also suggested that she wants groups not previously funded to be considered for funding, and she said that the allocation of money speaks to what the City values. In terms of the budget for social services, she said, “these dollars are pennies in comparison to other budgets.”
“When you’re trying to be a great city, which I believe about the City of East Lansing, you can’t abandon your social service groups when stuff gets tough,” Watson said. “Putting social service groups on the chopping block, like the City did in the past, is something I never would have voted for.”
Council elected in the past to direct as much funding as possible from CDBG to pay for the City of East Lansing’s HUD loan related to Avondale Square. Now, that loan has been paid off.
Tuesday’s public hearing will take place as part of the regular Council meeting. Anyone can call in to make a public comment near the start of the meeting or during the CDBG public hearing comment period. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. and the public notice is available here.