Area communities, programs would take major hit under Trump’s budget plan

  • Siblings Andrew and Rora Huynh, 18 and 15, of Florence interned at JFK Middle School in Northampton last summer as part of the Community Action YouthWorks Program. The program is one of many in danger of losing its funding under President Donald Trump’s $1.15 trillion budget proposal. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2017

Using words like “astonishing” and “unconscionable,” some community leaders in the Pioneer Valley worry about potential cuts to key programs should President Donald Trump’s first budget pass as proposed Thursday.

The $1.15 trillion budget outline, which prioritizes national security spending over social safety net and cultural programs, provides a window into the administration’s funding priorities. And that picture concerns local leaders.

The budget proposes to eliminate services like Community Development Block Grants, and would entirely defund some smaller agencies like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts.

“It’s unconscionable that you would attempt to balance the budget or reprioritize the budget at the expense of critical programs that serve the most vulnerable populations in our community,” Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said.

Northampton received $1,351,248 in CDBG funding this year, money that in large part pays for affordable housing and anti-poverty programs.

Fretting over the future of those grants isn’t new for Northampton officials. Republicans have previously targeted funding for the CDBG program, which comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and funds programs like the popular Meals on Wheels.

But in the past, sufficient money was ultimately provided because the grants finance initiatives that are popular across the ideological divide, Narkewicz said.

“My hope is that when Congress begins writing its budgets, it will not make this level of cuts because again, where will these vulnerable populations turn?” Narkewicz asked. “It will be up to state and local government to fill that gap.”

Although $1.3 million represents a small portion of the Northampton’s budget, Narkewicz said the city doesn’t have the available discretionary spending needed to plug the gap should the grants end.

Northampton isn’t alone in receiving assistance from the CDBG program. Communities like Amherst, Easthampton and Holyoke have also relied on those grants for projects ranging from job training to housing and infrastructure rehabilitation.

Service grants at stake

Also on the cutting board are Community Service Block Grants, which the local non-profit Community Action relies on to fund $660,297 in anti-poverty initiatives like food pantries, youth employment services and family support.

Discretionary spending like those grants is on the federal chopping block in order to make room for a $54 billion increase in military spending, as well as $2.6 billion to be spent in large part on Trump’s long-promised wall on the border with Mexico.

“I think it’s astonishing that there would be a cut for these programs to help pay for a border wall that isn’t going to make any bit of a difference,” said Clare Higgins, Community Action executive director and the former mayor of Northampton. “I believe we were promised that Mexico would pay for that wall. It looks like poor people are going to be paying for that wall.”

The Trump administration has also proposed axing the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which Community Action has used to provide $5 million so far this year for heating assistance to families in need.

Higgins said that program, along with the targeted Weatherization Assistance Program, have returned $576,000 to the region’s economy through local vendors.

Public broadcasting, arts

Another longtime Republican target that made the list of agencies to be wholly defunded is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds public media like local radio and television stations.

“If we’re talking about complete elimination for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it would have a significant effect on us,” said Martin Miller, CEO and general manager of New England Public Radio.

The local NPR affiliate gets around 7 percent of its budget from the CPB, Miller said. The federal agency also pays for important auxiliary services that the station benefits from financially, like music rights and an interconnection system used to distribute content to member stations.

Miller said it would be a mistake to wipe out the agency, because CPB’s allocations account for an “almost infinitesimal percentage” of the national budget — a statement echoed by PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger.

“The cost of public broadcasting is small, only $1.35 per citizen per year, and the benefits are tangible: increasing school readiness for kids 2-8, support for teachers and homeschoolers, lifelong learning, public safety communications and civil discourse,” Kerger said in a statement.

Thousands of arts programs would also face eradication if the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities are stripped of all funding, as the budget outline proposes.

One of those programs is the Paper City Poetry Project’s Readers and Writers Series, run out of The Care Center in Holyoke. The series is funded through a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and brings prominent authors to the center, which provides educational programming to pregnant and parenting teens.

“These experiences, which are generally denied people who live in poverty, are transformative,” Executive Director Anne Teschner said. “It’s one of our strongest programs.”

Now programs like that could face elimination if anything similar to the administration’s preliminary budget eventually passes Congress. But Teschner, like other officials, views this as the administration’s first step in a long process.

“We’ve seen these cuts before, and my hope is that they’re reinstated,” she said. “This is a very good way to spend public dollars.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.