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Block grant woes go from bad to worse

The city's block grant program may be more screwed up than ever.

Given its history, that's saying a lot.

And given the city's status as the nation's third-poorest city, that's a shame.

Not that anybody in a position of authority seems embarrassed about it, at least not enough to actually do something about it.

Of course, Mayor Byron Brown can fix the problem. But he hasn't exactly built a track record as a problem solver during his nearly four years in office, has he?

From what I learned during the course of reporting today's story, it appears Brown -- with his sidekick Steve Casey doing the dirty work, of course -- is using the program's millions in part to reward friends and punish enemies.

Let's move on to others who could be part of the solution, if they so chose.

For starters there is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It's real good at finding problems. Not so good at fixing them.

It has the ways -- it's the will that's lacking.

HUD and the city have been going back and forth since the feds issued their report in March that found 19 serious problems with the Brown administration's management of the block grant program. So far, 10 of the 19 problems have been fixed, ones that to varying degrees involve pushing the right paper across the table. But the root problems, starting with poor management, remain unresolved. The full updated report is here.

HUD has all kinds of regulatory powers. And it's got the power of the purse strings. Not that it acts that way. Heck, the feds won't even use the bully pulpit. Call them for a comment, a chance to nudge the city, and you get blah-blah-blah quotes from a flak. The last time anyone had anything stronger to say, HQ in DC called and told everyone to dummy up.

Perhaps Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Brian Higgins and Louise Slaughter should tell HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan to get tough. Our local delegation has been awfully quiet about the city's misuse of federal dollars ever since John LaFalce retired. Yeah, I know, they're all Democrats and want to act like We Are Family, but it is their constituents who are getting the short end of the deal.

The Common Council, on the other hand, has had a few things to say. But it's been mostly just talk.

For all its rhetoric, the Council in recent years has changed about 1 percent of the spending proposed by Brown in his block grand budget submissions. And there's been no push for structural changes.

Yeah, the Council was successful this summer in getting HUD's inspector general to agree to come in and audit the block grant program -- not that he's shown up yet. Far be it for me to discourage another pair of eyes from looking over the books, but what we need a lot more than another study is a solution.

Three Council members sit on the governing board of the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency -- the crew that mismanages the block grant program -- and I don't see them pushing for meaningful change on that front, either. Yeah, the mayor controls the board majority through appointments, but that doesn't mean you just go through the motions. And that's largely what's happening.

Then there is city's foundation community, which invests a lot of money dealing with the vestiges of poverty. It is in their interest to see that the biggest pot of money available to do likewise -- the block grant program -- is money well spent. But they're spectators.

Finally, there are those so-called advocates for the poor. There are a lot of fine people in their ranks. Unfortunately, too many of them feel they have more to lose by speaking out than the community has to gain, and Brown and Casey give them a justifiable reason for pause. But a lot of these advocates have, or want, a piece of the block grant pie. They'll grumble, but not much more.

It's all so Buffalo.

I guess this leaves it up to the citizenry to do something about it.

People, are you ready to rumble?

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