Community Development plan approved by Kent Co.

June 26, 2010
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County commissioners approved the annual plan for the Community Development Department recently week. The plan contains an estimated $2.4 million in grants the county department hopes to receive from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The money will pay for a variety of projects throughout the county including building, street, and sidewalk improvements. Funds will also go to programs that serve seniors and youth. Parks and recreational facilities will also get funding, as will fire stations and transit systems. The countywide foreclosure intervention program and other housing efforts will get funded through the action plan, too.

In total, Community Development will use the federal dollars to finance 33 projects over the next 12 months starting July 1. The money is expected to come from HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Program and HUD’s HOME Investment Partnership Program.

Community Development Director Linda Likely told commissioners that another $4.4 million from HUD and other federal agencies should be coming here this fiscal year, as should $955,000 in matching funds from the state, Kent County and other local sources. So the department should have about $7.8 million to award during the fiscal year, including the $2.4 million in CDBG and HOME grants.

Commissioners also gave Likely the green light to establish the Kent HOME Consortium with the city of Wyoming and then file an application for the new entity with HUD. If HUD approves it, Wyoming would receive about $240,000 in HOME funds next year, funding the city currently doesn’t receive. Likely said the new consortium would get $943,000 next year, a figure that includes the Wyoming allocation. The county’s department has until the end of the month to file it application with HUD.

Commissioners also approved nearly $472,000 worth of contracts between Community Development and 10 local agencies like the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan and Disability Advocates of Kent County. The largest contract went to Home Repair Services of Kent County. A portion of the $171,000 the agency will recieve will go toward its foreclosure intervention program, while the rest will be used for repair assistance.

All 10 agencies have agreed to disclose how their funding will be spent and will do so through links on the county’s Web site.

Although the awarding of those contracts was done unanimously, that action sparked a discussion about transparency in government among members of the county’s Finance Committee. Commissioners have been encouraging groups that receive funding from the county to make detailed online disclosures as to how those public dollars are being spent.

As a part of that push, the commission has established a subcommittee that is looking into how county business can be made more transparent. “Transparency is an ongoing effort in government,” said Harold Voorhees, a commissioner who serves on the subcommittee.

But Commissioner Jim Talen questioned how the county can ask the 10 agencies that will recieve federal funding from the Community Development contracts to be transparent before the commission has even created a set of standards for those groups to follow. “It seems we should have had a transparency discussion before (awarding the contracts),” said Talen.

But County Counsel Daniel Ophoff said in this case a county policy wouldn’t matter as HUD requires transparency when its funds are involved, and the federal agency defines the reporting requirements. As far as establishing guidelines for transparency, Ophoff noted that the city of Grand Rapids posts all of its checks online at the city’s Web site.

“We certainly have set the bar a lot lower than that,” he said to the committee. “What you’re seeing is the forward edge of that thing. We’ve just started.”

Talen, though, felt commissioners should know more about what the county is trying to accomplish with its subcommittee and its recent drive toward more transparency. “Where is this going to stop? Where is it headed? And what does it mean for county business?” he asked.

The county requires vendors to make public disclosures when they do business with the county. But Commissioner James Vaughn asked whether it was legal for the county to insist that private companies make their figures available for public inspection. Ophoff said it was legal to make that demand, at least when the public money comes from HUD.

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