Regional “Gentlemen’s Agreement” for Community Development Grants in jeopardy

The Upper Rio Grande Regional Review Committee, (RRC), met in Van Horn on Monday to determine regional priorities, develop objective scoring criteria and procedures, and set the maximum grant amount for the upcoming Community Development Block Grant, (CDBG), biennium.  The RRC is comprised of twelve elected officials appointed by the governor to represent the non-entitlement cities and counties in each of the State’s 24 regional Councils of Governments.  A non-entitlement community is any city under 50,000 population and any county under 200,000 population.

By Becky Brewster

Texas Department of Agriculture, (TDA), representative Trent Engledow provided mandatory training for the RRC members beginning with an overview of the CDBG process.  Texas receives an annual allotment from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide funding for community development projects in non-entitlement communities across the state.  These projects must benefit at least 51% low/moderate income individuals.   The estimated allotment for Texas for the next year is $61M with $40M dedicated to the Community Development fund.

Engledow reminded the RRC members of their responsibilities and highlighted the recent changes to the program.   TDA has now mandated that each RRC develop scoring criteria totaling 180 points with the State scoring an additional 20 points and set the minimum grant that could be prioritized to $275K.   This minimum grant amount is going to cause a potential upheaval in four of the 24 regional Councils of Governments.   The 4 regions along the border are sparsely populated and have few cities and counties.   For many years, these regions have had what is known as an unofficial “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” whereby their allocation is divided so that each community gets a piece of the pie over the two year funding cycle.   This was a non-binding oral agreement to guarantee funding would be available to all that apply.  In the other 20 regions, the competition for the funding is fierce and only a percentage of the applicants are funded.  Priority is usually given to water and sewer projects state-wide, but with the Gentlemen’s Agreement, other types of projects have been funded throughout the Rio Grande Council of Governments, (RGCOG),  region which consists of El Paso County, Hudspeth County, Culberson County, Jeff Davis County, Presidio County and Brewster County plus the small cities within those counties.  For instance, over the years, Culberson County has been able to construct a day care center, nutrition center, boys and girls club, and fire station, as well as make improvements to parks, the Christian Shelter and the Community Center and purchase equipment for the fire department and EMS.   Van Horn and other communities have also been able to pave streets using CDBG funds.  The problem inherent with the existing agreement is that the maximum amount for the grants each biennium was based on estimates of the HUD allocations; occasionally, the allocation was increased or an entity included in the estimate did not apply.   This would result in these excess funds being sent back to TDA to disburse to projects in other regions.  As Judge Beard of Alpine commented, this was “balancing with a moving target.”

For the 2017-2018 CDBG application cycle, it appears that 17 entities are planning to submit applications for funding in the RGCOG region.   If the existing agreement were to still be in effect, the estimated amount for each entity based on 2016 HUD allocations would be approximately $80K.   Over the last few years, the number of entities eligible to apply has increased and the allocations have decreased.   So the slice of the pie has gradually gotten smaller.   The last application cycle was at $168K, which was hardly enough to develop a viable project.  A decrease to $80K would severely limit the scope of any future projects.

So the RRC members were faced with a dilemma in trying to figure out how to follow the TDA guidelines yet ensure that all the non-entitlement communities in the region manage to participate in the CDBG program without ever leaving any of the region’s allocation on the table.   After much debate, the RRC set the program priorities and scoring criteria for the 2017-2018 application cycle.   Ultimately, the RRC retained the existing scoring criteria based on project priorities, the need/distress of the beneficiaries and the match/leverage an applicant provides.  In keeping with the intent of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement “  to cycle the funding awards to all the communities in the region, the RRC added a fourth scoring criteria: previous funding.   A community that did not receive funding during the last biennium is awarded forty points which should help those that did not get funding in 2017-2018, have enough points to rise to the top in the 2019-2020 cycle.   The hope is that each community funded in 2017-2018 will develop a really spectacular project for their grant of $275K; this should fund about 10-12 projects.   Those remaining 5-7 projects that are left out in the cold will get the extra points in the next cycle which will move them up to get funded.   If everything goes as planned, each entity will get funded with a much larger piece of the pie but will only get funded every third year rather than every other year.   The jury is still out on that…it will be several years before the communities will know if this scoring formula will actually work as intended.  But it was obvious that the hearts of the RRC members were in the right place, and kept the region as a whole in mind during this delicate process.

For information on the RRC, readers may contact the Rio Grande Council of Governments at 915.533.0998 (www.riocog.org) and for information on the CDBG program, readers may contact the TDA at http://www.texasagriculture.gov/GrantsServices.aspx and select Community Development from the menu.