When Pittsburgh City Councilor Ricky Burgess took office last year, he promised that no one was going to get community grant money just for being a political ally. He's delivered on that promise and then some: So far, nobody has seen a dime of the district's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money. And Burgess' attempt to reform the system is holding things up.
Every year, the city's nine council districts receive $75,000 apiece in federal CDBG money. It has been common practice for each councilor to determine how to spend that money in his or her district.
In the case of District 9, the money was used by Burgess' predecessor, Twanda Carlisle, in a kickback scheme. So after being elected to replace Carlisle, Burgess decided to change things. He announced last spring that he was giving the money to a local philanthropic organization, the POISE Foundation, which would be in charge of parceling it out.
"What I've tried to do is remove the politics of that process," Burgess told CP at the time.
But the city still hasn't figured out exactly how this new system will work. As a result, the $75,000 from last year has yet to be awarded.
"We've got to get this thing up and running," says Mark Lewis, president of POISE. "We're still pushing to get this started as soon as possible.
"This is something that hasn't been done before," he adds. "I think the big issue was whether the actual monies would come down to the POISE Foundation." One early plan would have transferred the money directly to POISE's bank account, but that plan has been scrapped. Instead, the money will stay in city coffers until POISE designates the recipients.
Lewis says he's optimistic that POISE could "receive applications and have the review done by the middle of May, end of May at the latest" -- assuming there are no more delays on the city's end.
Under the original timeline, POISE hoped to begin the application process last October.
Burgess did not respond to messages left with his office. But Susan Scheuring, the city's program supervisor for community development, says the city is "in the process of going under contract with the POISE Foundation."
"This is something different for us," she notes. "We had to take our time to make sure that we had gotten it right."
Scheuring says City Planning will be ensuring that POISE complies with federal regulations. From here on out, she says, "We expect [the funding process] to move forward as quickly as possible."
In addition to the CDBG money, Lewis says that POISE will distribute the district's remaining "Neighborhood Needs" funding -- money that Carlisle never spent even though it had been allocated to the district from a now-defunct program. Lewis says he has been told that the district has roughly $140,000 in Neighborhood Needs money still coming. He also wants to get moving on preparations for the 2009 grants. (CDBG money for 2009 has not yet been received, Scheuring says, because it's part of the federal budget currently being hashed out on Capitol Hill.)
Once the paperwork is cleared, Lewis says, "Really there will be, hopefully, three pots of money going on at the same time."
So far, he adds, "We haven't had any irate organizations." But "I would imagine they are extremely ready to receive funding. I'm sure there's going to be a pretty big demand."
District 9 stretches from Garfield to East Hills. It includes communities that have been plagued with violence and the collapse of local businesses.
"We are in a dire situation when there is no revenue flowing into the community," says Jibril Abdulhafith, a community organizer familiar with the CDBG process.
"I understand [Burgess'] logic," he says. But given the district's pressing needs, he's wary of continuing delays in getting money to the community.
"Don't add layers and layers on the process," he says.