Imperiled block grants called key factor in local economy

Dave McDonald, a Mattapan-based contractor, gets 75 percent of his business from the city of Boston and has worked on more than 60 housing projects with the help of a block grant program.

But his business is now in danger, he says, with President Obama’s budget axe poised to come down on the federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), which also support programs for the homeless, economic development, and human services.

The city administers the program through its Department of Neighborhood Development (DND) and could end up losing $6 million since the Obama budget for fiscal 2012 includes a 7.5 percent cut, on top of a mid-year cut during the current fiscal year, which ends in September. The program, from which Massachusetts receives $117 million a year, enjoys bipartisan support.

At a roundtable discussion with other beneficiaries in Jamaica Plain last week, McDonald, who has been involved with the program for 10 years, said the cuts would “devastate my business. It would be enormous if there’s any cut into that program.”

He was joined by a Hyde Park senior homeowner, the owner of a Cambridge food truck company, and a Dorchester student taking an alternative education high school program.

The student, Kendra Drakes, called the program an “investment in human beings.” Her program, the Roxbury-based GED Plus, receives funding through the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Economic Development Industrial Corporation’s Office of Jobs and Community Services.

“How can you cut money that is going directly back into the economy, creating, maintaining jobs?” asked Bill Minkle, director of the Ecumenical Social Action Committee (ESAC) in Jamaica Plain, which supports the program Drakes participates in. “I mean, it doesn’t make any sense. So the budget needs to be cut; we understand that. But cutting CDBG makes absolutely no sense.”

Minkle called Drakes a “prime example of what we do.” She works at Forever 21 on Newbury St. and keeps an eye on merchandise for the Red Sox at Fenway Park. She said she has one more test left and plans to attend Curry College and major in criminal justice.

“We want the unemployment numbers to go down,” said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, who oversaw the discussion with Newton Mayor Setti Warren at his side. “But if we cut these funds, people will be put out of their jobs they have presently, because a lot of those jobs are funded by CDBG funds. ESAC has several, David’s contracting company has several.”

As details of the president’s budget were being made public this week, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, visiting the Murphy School to read to sixth-graders there, was quick to say, “We’re going to take a look at the whole budget. We’re going to have to make some tough choices but I need to see where we’re at with the overall picture in the budget, who else is being asked to pay, how much, where, how, what. We just have to look at it very carefully.”

The Obama budget proposal, which is the administration’s blueprint for how it hopes to deal with the country’s economic situation, is hardly the last word on the subject. Congress will now have its say, and there will be much legislative maneuvering before a budget bill is enacted.

Kerry and the rest of the Massachusetts delegation are lobbying for the president, as well as U.S. Senate and House leadership, to preserve $5.1 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Obama has proposed cutting its outlay by $2.5 billion.

“We all appreciate that difficult decisions have to be made this budget cycle to restore fiscal sanity and begin to tackle the debt,” they wrote in a Feb. 14 letter to legislative leaders. “However, this year Massachusetts, and many other parts of the country, have seen record breaking low temperatures and brutal storm conditions. LIHEAP ensures that families can heat their homes, that senior citizens aren’t forced to choose between their next meal and staying warm, and helps those who live in the Northeast to cope with the winter despite record high home heating oil costs.”