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County commissioners decide how to spend federal grant funds

Wednesday, June 16, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

Travis County commissioners on Tuesday approved spending $942,749 in federal money, primarily on road improvements, homebuyer assistance, and social work services.


The money will come from a federal pot know as the Community Development Block Grant, or CDBG, which the county was first awarded in 2006. The court also approved procedural changes it hopes will make it easier to spend the money quickly.


Currently, the county is out of compliance with a federal requirement that the grant money be spent in a timely manner, said Christy Moffett, a senior CDBG planner. That status has triggered closer monitoring by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that administers the grant program.


The money must go toward projects meant to improve the quality of life for residents of the county’s unincorporated areas. The latest round of projects approved Tuesday will be funded starting Oct. 1.


When commissioners discussed the proposed projects last week, County Judge Sam Biscoe, president of the Travis County Housing Finance Corporation’s board of directors, expressed concern about allocating additional money to a homebuyer’s assistance program this year because funds from the previous year had not yet been spent.


Christy Moffett, a senior CDBG planner for the county, explained that difficulties with other projects had stalled the homebuyer’s assistance program. The few staff members on her team were focused on a challenging land purchase.


However, other factors contributing to the county’s out-of-compliance status include a slow process for modifying and adding projects to the list of those commissioners approve each year. If a project on the commissioner-approved list hits a snag, it takes between 60 and 90 days to make changes because county staff members must first solicit community input. Meanwhile, the federal money associated with that project remains unspent.


Moffett and her staff came up with a plan they hope will keep the money flowing. On Tuesday, county commissioners approved that plan, which includes alternate projects along with the official list of work to be funded with the CDBG money.


“If we go ahead and put alternates in the action plan, then as soon as we know something is slowing down, and we need to replace it, we can go ahead and put something in,” Moffett said.


All the proposals will be presented during public hearings on June 23 and July 22. The court will still have to approve any project changes this year, but county staff members won’t have to hold public hearings — that would already have been done on the front end.


Biscoe said he met with county and housing corporation staff members after the June 8 meeting to learn more about the compliance issue. The housing corporation staff will also brainstorm ways to ensure money is spent in a timely manner, he said.


I left that meeting with the impression that we really should try to put in place another mechanism to help us expedite these projects,” Biscoe said.


The county must inform the federal housing department by Aug. 13 about how it plans to spend the money.


Here is the proposed breakdown:


$400,000 for construction of improvements to Lava Lane, located in the southeast part of the county. Completion is expected in September 2011.

    $285,000 for a program that makes buying homes more affordable for first-time buyers. The program targets families whose annual household income is below 80 percent of the area median income.

    $188,454 for grant planning and administration costs, including partial salary for a grant planner and senior engineer who oversees street and water supply improvement projects.

    $69,295 for a social worker to provide case management services in unincorporated areas.

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