By Peter Bodley
Anoka County is bracing for cuts in federal Community Development Block Grant and HOME affordable housing dollars this year.
“We are getting very mixed signals from Washington on how much less we will be getting than in 2016,” said Karen Skepper, executive director of the Anoka County Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which makes recommendations on how those federal dollars are allocated.
To be “safe,” HRA staff has put in place a 15 percent reduction for both programs in recommending projects and programs for funding in 2017, Skepper said.
If the reductions are less, the county has the ability to approve a supplemental allocation later in the year to spend the extra dollars, she said.
The HRA, which comprises the seven members of the Anoka County Board, had a public hearing March 7 on the proposed allocations for $377,644 in HOME funds and $1.19 million in Community Development Block Grant dollars, which were broken down to $626,255 in the competitive project pool; $179,023 in the competitive public service pool, which by law is limited to 15 percent of the total pot; $161,016 for the Coon Rapids formula allocation (Coon Rapids is an entitlement city because its population tops 60,000); and $227,197 for planning and administration.
Funding recommendations presented by Renee Sande, community development manager, came from a block grant and HOME work group meeting of HRA trustees Feb. 14 when all applicants were invited to address the trustees for three minutes.
According to Skepper, four trustees (County Board members) comprised the work group and asked two questions of all applicants: HYow does their project benefit Anoka County, and why are the federal funds necessary for this project to be successful?
In addition, public service program applicants were posed a third question: How does the organization plan to continue this activity without block grant funding in future years, Skepper said.
Each question was scored by the trustees independent of each other with HOME and Community Development Block Grant projects having a score range of zero to 10 points per question for a total score of 20, while public service agency applications had a scoring range of zero to seven points per question for a maximum of 21 points, she said.
Those were added to staff’s technical scores to arrive at a final score that was the basis for the recommendations, Skepper said.
Following the public hearing, the HRA approved the recommendations with no changes on a 6-0 vote – Trustee Robyn West was not at the meeting – with final action to be taken by the Anoka County Board after a required 30-day written comment period.
Only one project was approved for HOME dollars in which a 25 percent match is required, $339,880 for AEON’s proposed 54-unit Ramsey Apartments project. The HRA also set aside $37,764 in HOME funding for administration.
Left unfunded were two Habitat for Humanity requests, both in Columbia Heights. Habitat for Humanity has received significant HOME funds in prior years, according to Skepper.
In addition to the Coon Rapids application, three out of eight projects received HRA approval in the competitive project pool, with Anoka County Community Action Program’s manufactured home removal and replacement program getting $200,000, Alexandra House facility improvements (nine furnaces and a parking lot) receiving $156,160, and $270,000 earmarked for Anoka County’s homeowner rehabilitation program.
The city of Bethel’s sewer improvement project request scored well, but there was not enough money available to fund it because Bethel would not accept anything less than the $350,000 requested, according to Skepper.
But if the county gets more block grant money than anticipated, the HRA has the flexibility to move some of the money from the county’s rehabilitation program, Skepper said.
Other projects not funded included Columbia Heights Root property brownfield redevelopment ($163,200), Spring Lake Park’s Osborne trail rehabilitation ($235,300), Habitat for Humanity scattered sites rehabilitation ($35,000) and Accessible Space group homes rehabilitation ($85,000), which was ineligible because it is located in Coon Rapids, an entitlement city.
Six of 10 public service programs, in which a total of $321,920 was requested and only $168,420 was available, were approved for block grant dollars.
They were Anoka County Community Action Program’s Chores and More, $28,500; Cars for Neighbors car repair program, $40,000; North Metro Pediatrics access to mental health services, $49,920; North Suburban Counseling transportation assistance, $10,000; Southern Anoka Community Assistance to purchase food, operating expenses, website or computer upgrades, $20,000; and Stepping Stone Emergency Housing co-occurring mental health counselor, $20,000.
Not funded were requests from Anoka-Ramsey Community College for its random acts of kindness program, $25,000; Impact Services for a senior outreach coordinator and family aging education, $30,000; Lee Carlson Center, holistic and integrative health, $30,000; and Nucleus Clinic for two part-time nursing staff, patient intake coordinator and medication, $68,500.
In planning and administration, $218,197 was allocated to the county to administer the block grant program and $9,000 to county fair housing activities.
According to Skepper, there was no money left for three other planning requests: Alexandra House, $23,000 for shelter redesign and expansion plan; and two applications from the city of Andover, one for a municipal water expansion feasibility study, $50,000, and the other for a market study of workforce and senior housing, $20,000.
Speakers were limited to three minutes each at the public hearing.
Ron Edwards from Lee Carlson Center, which was recommended for no public service dollars, told the HRA trustees that the center would accept less money if it was available.
The agency, which is very Anoka County centered, serves the mental health needs of between 3,000 and 4,000 people a year and partners with other agencies, according to Edwards.
Partial funding would also be appreciated for Anoka-Ramsey’s random acts of kindness program, which pays expenses for students in crisis that endangers their ability to continue their education, such as housing, utilities, food and transportation, a representative of the college’s foundation said.
Connie Moore, Alexandra House executive director, thanked the HRA for funding to replace nine furnaces and expand the parking lot at its facility in Blaine.
“This will have a great impact for the shelter,” she said.
But Becky Fink, Nucleus Clinic executive director, asked the HRA to reconsider its lack of funding for the clinic’s request and whether the scoring was driven by money.
She was “amazed at the lack of clarity” in the process, Fink said.
“We missed by two points,” she said. “I would like follow up with staff to take a look at where we could have done better.”
According to Trustee Jim Kordiak, the HOME and block grant allocation process is always difficult, and even though there were a couple of changes he would like to make, he would support the recommendations.
“It is what it is,” Kordiak said.
Trustee Rhonda Sivarajah, who chairs the County Board, said the HRA process is more transparent than it had been in the past with the public much more involved.
There was no ambiguity in the process and those that came better prepared to answer the questions got the better scores, she said.
“Anoka County is a little unique in the way we handle this process,” Sivarajah said. “Some counties keep these funds for internal programs, but we have chosen to distribute the funds to our community partners.”
Trustee Mike Gamache said he appreciated that some of the agencies that were not recommended for funding were willing to settle for less money than they requested.
With only a limited amount of money, the HRA has a balancing act, he said. According to Trustee Scott Schulte, HRA chairperson, the HRA is very involved in the allocation process, not just leaving it up to staff.
“We would like fund all the requests, and without these agencies, the burden on the county would be considerably heavier,” Schulte said. “We allocate the dollars the best we can.”
Trustee Julie Braastad asked staff if applicants not awarded funds are told what is lacking in their application.
Skepper explained that emails were sent to all applicants March 3 letting them know if their funding request had been recommended or not and staff is also willing to meet with applicants to talk about how they scored and why.