Block grant money discussed

A portion of Costa Mesa’s federal funding that’s annually awarded to nonprofit agencies was up for discussion during a City Council’s study session Tuesday.

Though what to do in the coming fiscal year with the public service grants within the city’s to-be-determined Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, allocation came not without considerable debate.

CDBG, a long-standing program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, last fiscal year bolstered city coffers by nearly $1.05 million, about $157,000 of which was doled out to local nonprofits that aid the city’s youth, seniors, homeless, disabled and low-income residents.

In the future, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger said he would support using the city’s general fund, rather than CDBG money, to help these nonprofits.

He called the CDBG “borrowed” federal money from countries like China that, he said, could be better spent toward long-term infrastructure improvements or some code enforcement related to them.

“It seems strange to me that we’re borrowing money to give to charities,” said Mensinger, adding later that his reasoning was arrived at despite his own involvement in many charities. “It doesn’t seem to have a lot of logic. That’s where I’m at.”

Mayor Jim Righeimer said the city should find the most effective way to administer the nonprofit money and that “nobody’s saying don’t fund any of these programs ... but to find the most efficient way to fund the programs.”

Councilwoman Wendy Leece opposed Mensinger’s notion, calling it potentially “devastating to the community.”

Leece added that with all the meeting’s talk of lowering administrative costs related to executing the grants, the city “would end up spending just as much time if we reinvented the wheel of accountability and we took it away out of the CDBG realm, so to speak. I don’t know why we’re doing this. ... I think in the long run, we’re still going to have to spend money on the oversight of these grants.”

If the city cut the public service grants, Leece said, “I think we would just really impact the numbers that [the agencies] serve and the effectiveness of their service. I always think that the nonprofit, faith-based community should do more, but that doesn’t mean that we should give nothing.”

Councilwoman Sandy Genis sided with Leece, saying she would rather fund the agencies through the CDBG program and not through the city’s general fund.

She also called for strict oversight when awarding the public service grants in a manner consistent with the extensive accountability required when obtaining the federal CBDG funds.

“I want to know who is being helped,” Genis said. “I want to know what are the characteristics of somebody being helped.”

Tuesday’s discussion was spurred by a council request for further evaluation made in June 2012 that “raised questions regarding the merits of funding ‘charities’ with taxpayer funds,” according to a city staff report.

On March 5, an ad-hoc city committee interviewed 14 applicants for the public service grants within Costa Mesa’s upcoming CDBG allocation. Since then, the committee has created a preliminary funding recommendation, according to city officials, and finalization of the CDBG granting process is expected to take place in June.

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