The Huntingdon Borough Community Development Committee meets the first Thursday of each month at 5 p.m. to plan and supervise infrastructure, development, and other ongoing projects in the borough. The committee is officially made up of three members—Chairman John Hyde, and council members David Quarry and Sean Steeg—although it is also attended by, and reports are heard from, many other important figures of Huntingdon County. The February 7th meeting was the first attended by this reporter.
During this meeting, the committee met to discuss the 2019 application process for funds from the Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG). CDBG is a program designed to benefit census-designated
This all sounds fairly straightforward, however—as this reporter discovered while struggling to understand the political nuances of Thursday’s committee meeting—the question of choosing a project to put these funds toward is not simple at all. Council member Sean Steeg explains that frustrations arise during meetings about CDBG because finding a project that qualifies is an example of “the clash between the theory and practice of government.”
According to the County Planning Director, Mark Colussy, the goal is to choose activities which are both “eligible and fundable.” Committee members try to plan projects with Colussy and Community Development Administrator, Melody Mason. Those two words, ‘eligibility and fundability’ would haunt this reporter throughout the hour-long meeting, as they reared their heads again and again.
Tensions began to run high because the eligibility and fundability qualifications for projects which can use CDBG funding are more complicated than apparent. “Clearing these hurdles might make sense to one person but not others,” explains Steeg, depending on the case. For instance, three different projects the borough council has wanted funds for in the past—making the American Legion building wheelchair accessible, purchasing a swing for disabled children, or maintenance on issues with the underground infrastructure of Muddy Run—all do not qualify.
Suggestions to make the American Legion building wheelchair accessible were not eligible or fundable because the American Legion is not technically a public group. This saddened committee members, like Grant Administrator George Drobnock, who claimed that around 25% of active American Legion members, mostly disabled veterans, cannot attend events or meetings anymore because the building is not accessible to them. However, as Mason clarified during the meeting, disabled veterans are “not a protected group.”
Another project rejected by the judge in charge of deciding if the projects are ‘eligible or fundable’ was to procure a swing accessible to handicapped children. This is because children do not earn incomes, so from the interpretations of individuals at the state level, this project would not be eligible for CDBG funding. This reporter sympathized with the frustration of committee members who felt that although this was conceptually understandable, it is still exasperating that a technicality bars the committee from building swings for wheelchair-bound children.
Finally, no work can be funded for Muddy Run, described by Steeg as a “ticking time bomb” because of eligibility problems. Maintenance on the parts of Muddy Run that are underground, such as beneath Moore Street, could save the borough money in the long run. Repairs to underground arches could prevent costly sinkholes, like the one that appeared on 8th and 9th streets and cost the borough roughly $300,000. However, water flows down to low-income zones from wealthier neighborhoods on the hill, like the Highlands, which are not designated as low-income. Therefore, because this project would also have benefits for higher and mid-income zones, this project is ineligible as well.
For the past five years, Steeg says, the borough has mostly put their CDBG funds toward curb cuts, which make sidewalks handicap accessible and are “quick, easy, and painless.” Trying to prove the fundability of other projects is understandably frustrating, and each round of rejections makes the council members more risk averse.
There is a lot more that could be said about the meeting and the concept of CDBG, however the basics boil down to interpretations of specific people at the state. This reporter is eager to continue—to the best of her ability—covering this issue and following up when decisions are made regarding CDBG activities.
After discussing CDBG, the committee heard from Bob Reitman, the Executive Director of Huntingdon County Business and Industry, about a solar LED lights project with engineering group Eads. Bob has met with partners JC Blair, Juniata, and the school district, all of whom are optimistic about the project. If the project with Eads progresses, the walkability of streets from the high school down to Moore, Mifflin, and Washington may benefit from better lighting.