FLORENCE — The town held the required public hearings for its federal Community Development Block Grant on June 6 and July 1. But under deadline pressure to submit a qualified project, the town was unable to use any of the public’s ideas.
As a result, “we’re kind of looking silly,” Councilwoman Michelle Cordes said at the Town Council’s July 1 special meeting. Town Manager Brent Billingsley said he agrees with how it looks, but it’s not town staff’s fault.
Two neighbors on Poston Circle, Catherine Vargas and Bob Mack, asked for help rehabbing their homes. Vargas is retired with a chronic illness and Mack is a 77-year-old Vietnam veteran.
Councilwoman Judy Hughes later spoke in favor of spending at least some of the grant to help them. Town Management Analyst Jennifer Evans said the town can’t guarantee these funds to specific individuals, but must open up an application process and determine the greatest need. With the grant application due Aug. 1, the town has limited time to do this, she said.
Cordes further said she didn’t like wasting people’s time, asking for public input on a done deal. “Can we do a better job?” she asked.
Cathy Adam of Florence agreed, saying citizens came to give input believing they could do some good. To encourage citizens to come forward, “You need to help us help you.”
Billingsley said the town is accustomed to having two years to plan for its CDBG grant, but everything changed this year and the town needed a qualified project quickly. The town will use this year’s grant to build sidewalk ramps that comply with the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act in the neighborhood surrounding Florence K-8 School.
The town used to partner with the town of Winkelman on CDBGs; each year, one town would forego its grant to allow the other to receive a double grant and do bigger projects. The two towns are now discontinuing this arrangement as Pinal County takes over distribution of CDBGs.
Florence found out belatedly that it could receive a $91,000 grant this year but it needed to act fast, Billingsley said. Town staff used the information in the town’s recent “Safe Routes to School” study to apply for a grant that removes architectural barriers. He said it’s the town’s best option to get the CDBG this year.
Cordes said wheelchairs can’t get to the post office and asked why that barrier wasn’t included.
Billingsley replied there are several reasons. The town has a smaller grant amount this year and a short time to apply. The town can show the neighborhood around the school meets the low to moderate income standard. He said this project is “the only one we could apply for and meet the time constraints.”
Cordes also asked about Vargas and Mack. Vargas said she has been waiting five years for this grant. Evans said the town only accepts applications for housing rehab when there’s funding available and an active program. The last time the town used its CDBG for housing rehab was four years ago, she said.
Mayor Tara Walter said she’d like to see the town bring back housing rehab.
Adam said she knows two people who had their houses rehabbed, and “it changed their lives.” She said these projects have eliminated blight in her neighborhood. She added she’d advocate for housing rehab every year the town has a CDBG. “I think that’s what CDBG should be all about.”
But Billingsley said housing rehab is not a program the town can restart quickly. The town must hire people to oversee the paperwork, bidding and construction. Adding to the cost, the grant must also pay to move people out of their houses, sometimes for as much as four months, while rehab is completed, Evans said.
Councilwoman Karen Wall said she sympathizes with Vargas and Mack but asked how the town can fairly determine who is most deserving of these projects. She recommended the town continue projects that serve “the greater good” rather than individuals.
Vice Mayor John Anderson said he’d like for town staff to “put together a plan” showing the advantages and disadvantages of a housing rehab program.
“We’ll do it,” Billingsley promptly replied.
The council on July 1 authorized the CDBG application and a separate resolution committing $48,000 in local funds as leverage for the grant.
Sidewalk improvement and owner-occupied housing rehabilitation were both listed as potential projects on public hearing notices. There are 38 curb returns that need ADA-compliant ramps in the project area.
The work will include saw-cutting the existing curb returns, demolition of existing concrete and replacement with new ADA-compliant truncated domes between Butte Avenue, South San Carlos Street, East Virginia Street, South Elizabeth Street, East Brady Street and South Park Street. Estimated cost is $139,000, according to town staff reports.