Use It or Lose It

The county must spend most of its current $35.2 million community development grant by October 31

Alphonso Branch is doing his part -- Monday through Friday, 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. -- as a janitor at the Culmer-Overtown Neighborhood Center. The sixteen-year-old varsity receiver and cornerback was there last week, broom in hand, flicking the detritus of a rainy Tuesday off the center's speckled-brown linoleum tile floor, depositing it in a dustpan, and dumping the contents into a bright yellow 55-gallon garbage container. When he finished that task, Branch hoisted green plastic chairs upside-down onto the top of conference tables in a meeting room.

For his labor the Booker T. Washington High School teen earns $5.15 per hour, the minimum wage. He will work 160 hours over the next eight weeks. When summer is over, the reticent Branch will have earned $824 before taxes, a sum he says, at least on that second day of work and two weeks away from his first paycheck, he plans to use to buy school clothes.

Alphonso's mother, Lashonda Grissom, is glad that three of her four teenagers got jobs this year through a special county summer jobs program funded with federal dollars. "They are getting to know what it's all about," she says. "They get to earn their own money. They can go and pick out their own things for school. They can work and learn responsibility, and they can see how hard it is." And Alphonso is glad, too, although not prone to verbal effusion as a budding man of few words. "I like it," he squeezes out between sweeps of the broom.

The money Branch earns this summer will buy more than a first taste of adulthood. And it will do more than help the Culmer Center look spanking clean. Branch also is helping Miami-Dade County and every poor and disadvantaged person in it. The money paid him is $824 less that the county must spend in order to unload 35.2-million neglected federal dollars by October 31. If the sum isn't spent, the federal government may decide to send less in the future. That would be a big deal because it would mean less money to help poor folks in Miami-Dade County.

Thank you from all of us, Mr. Branch.

Miami-Dade has a lot of poor people. The poverty rate had climbed to three times the national average by the 1990 census. Based upon the county's desultory income figures, Miami-Dade gets about $23 million yearly from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for economic-development projects and programs that will help moderate- and low-income residents. Although the new poverty rates aren't out yet for the 2000 census, the poverty levels in Miami-Dade probably haven't improved so dramatically that anyone is ready to let Washington send the money to another county.

But HUD doesn't just send money -- $23 million, year after year. It also expects the county to spend it. And that is where Miami-Dade, along with 157 other places nationally, have had a bit of trouble.

Federal law requires that the county have not more than 1.5 percent of the current grant left unspent from previous years by the time it gets a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) award for 2002. As of March 2001, Miami-Dade had $35.2 million more than that. Some of the projects were originally approved as far back as 1993, such as $315,000 to remove a barrier at the Community Action Agency office to make the building compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and $105,000 to buy land in South Miami. Nationally, there is a whopping $218 million lying around.

On April 11 the county's Office of Community and Economic Development (OCED), which administers CDBG dollars, got a scolding letter from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The letter reminded OCED that "the timely expenditure of funds remains a priority of the highest order to the Department," a directive that a HUD spokesman translated thusly: "It behooves everybody that the money out there gets used."

And that's where Alphonso Branch comes in.

Miami-Dade County aims to spend its $35.2 million quick. On April 24 the county commission unanimously approved a five-million-dollar summer jobs program. It is being administered through the South Florida Employment & Training Consortium, a nonprofit organization that already has a summer jobs program in place; both are paid for with federal dollars, channeled through the state, and the newer jobs program is being seen as an amplification more than a duplication. Go figure.

In any case, the money would hire 3000 teenagers from poor neighborhoods in Miami-Dade County to work 160 hours at the minimum wage. While the wages to be paid account for only $2.5 million, the other $2.5 million will be used to pay the employer's share of workers compensation and Social Security payments, job counseling, for supervisors to visit job sites, and for other administrative costs, says Joseph Alfano, executive director of the consortium.

Assuming 3000 kids are hired and the county spends the five million dollars by the end of August, that leaves another $30.2 million to get rid of. Rick Glasgow, OCED community development division director, says the county will do that several ways. OCED is setting up an $8- to $10-million floating-loan program for businesses "involved with" affordable-housing projects. The money would have to be paid back within two years. The OCED is also scheduling weekly meetings with organizations that have received CDBG grants to help work out obstacles to spending the money they have been allotted.

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