Battling, Bungling Bureaucrats

Miami says the feds are holding up a grant worth millions. The feds say Miami didn't ask for it just right. Miami says up yours. The feds say . . .

With $26 million on the line, the City of Miami didn't want to take any chances. So before requesting a generous grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city spent months of time and more than $10,000 training employees to fill out the complicated grant application. Failure to complete the form properly would jeopardize the millions of dollars HUD awards Miami annually.

The city failed. As of this past week, the application -- originally due in March -- has not yet been approved by HUD. Money that nearly 50 different social-service agencies depend on to feed the elderly, train the jobless, transport the disabled, and provide basic health care to the city's poor is not yet available. "This is a disaster," says a city official familiar with the application. "We still don't have [the grant] and the word is that we are not going to get it."

Officials at Miami's Department of Community Development -- a department dedicated solely to acquiring and distributing the annual grant -- pass the blame for the withheld funds to the bureaucrats at HUD's regional offices in Jacksonville. Those supposed red-tape artists up north are rejecting the application just because a couple of ts are not crossed, they say. Besides, the grant-application process is just so much busywork. "We believe this plan is an exercise in virtual reality," scoffs Jose Cerdan, coordinator of the Department of Community Development. "For us this is a distraction. All they tell us is that we forgot to put an address on line 25 of paragraph C of page 130. They don't tell us if the plan is good or bad overall. It is nonsense."

HUD has been awarding -- and Miami has been receiving -- community development block grants since 1974. Cities with more than 50,000 residents receive an amount of money determined by a national formula. Miami's 1995 grant-in-waiting totals more than $26 million, with most of that money distributed in low-interest loans to poor families and in direct payments to developers of low-income housing.

Historically, about 15 percent of the city's annual grant money supports 45 different social-service programs. Some of the money pays for 312 meals served daily to the elderly at First United Methodist Church at 400 Biscayne Blvd. The money also provides day care for 457 children from low- and moderate-income families at Notre Dame Day Care in Little Haiti. A cut of the grant money is also awarded to programs operated by JESCA, the YMCA, Miami Jewish Family Services, and others.

This year, for the first time, HUD combined the block-grant application with the application for three other existing programs: general housing, emergency shelter of the homeless, and housing for AIDS patients. The four grants were combined into one large "consolidated plan." The city began preparing for the new application late last year, when four city accountants and planners attended seminars in Louisville and Washington, D.C. Two computers were purchased to assist the collection of data. Total cost of the trips and the computers, including software and training, is estimated at more than $10,000.

Miami's application was due March 21 so it could be approved before the start of the city's fiscal year, June 1. Miami officials turned in the application on time, assuming it was correct and that it would be accepted, says Jose Cerdan. Then the city got the letter.

On May 26, Miami City Manager Cesar Odio received a missive from regional HUD director Jim Nichol in Jacksonville. "We have completed our review of the subject plan submitted by the City of Miami," Nichol wrote. "Based on our review, we have no choice but to delay approval of the plan along with the funding of the four entitlement programs included in the plan, totaling $26,147,000. This delay is due to your plan's omission of several significant statutorily required items."

Three detailed pages of mistakes were attached. Some of the errors were Cerdan's uncrossed ts and missing addresses, but the main problem was of far greater scope. According to Cerdan and other city officials, Miami's planning, building, and zoning department had not assembled key information missing from the application, principally an explanation of how the city intended to address social ills over the next five years.

The missing information was a key component of the two-part application. The second part, called the "action plan," describes how much money is needed for the upcoming year and specifically how it is going to be spent. The first -- and incomplete -- section is called the "strategic plan," a long-term view of the city's social problems. Its compilation was the planning department's responsibility. Most of the information the department needed, Cerdan says, was floating around city hall in previously published documents and studies, but because of staff turnover, the department could not gather the data in time. "It has been a problem," Cerdan admits.

However, another city official, who declined to be named, has a much harsher assessment of the department's failure. "If you don't have a strategic plan, then you don't know where are your needs. You have to, pardon the expression, bullshit your way. I say that whoever goofed should be fired."

Economic planner Robert Schwarzreich says turnover wasn't the reason his department failed to create a strategic plan. Some top planning officials have recently retired or taken jobs in other cities, he says, but they were still working for Miami when the application was first due. Instead he seconds Cerdan's assertion that the true problem was HUD's nitpicking. "The reviewer in Jacksonville was looking at [the application] from a very narrow perspective, almost as if it were a checklist," Schwarzreich opines. "For what HUD really wanted, you needed a lot of resources to do a really fine job, and we have only so many people available to us. I'm not saying the [strategic plan] was perfect. It wasn't. It's just that it was pretty good."

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