Saturday, February 16th, 2008
Trio agrees with Sen. Brown on federal budget cuts
By Pat Royse
Three Mercer County department heads have the same beef with the federal budget just submitted to Congress by the president as does Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown.
Brown released a report this week objecting to program funding cuts in economic development, health care, law enforcement and education that he said are important to the quality of life in Ohio's 48 rural counties.
In a telephone press conference on the report, Brown said Ohio lost more than 15,000 jobs in less than a year.
"We can't get businesses to build in communities that have crumbling roads and no sewer and water infrastructure," he said. "With these issues, it's a disaster waiting to happen."
Mercer County Community Development Director Larry Stelzer is particularly concerned about a proposed 20 percent reduction in Ohio's share of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. CDBG funds are designated for improving facilities and services, building infrastructure such as roads and water and/or sewer lines, revitalizing neighborhoods and providing economic opportunities for smaller communities.
"We use CDBG a lot," Stelzer said. "We used it to set up our revolving loan fund to help local businesses. We have used it for infrastructure and road projects, things we couldn't afford, otherwise."
Stelzer said the CDBG allotment has been decreasing by 2 or 3 percent for the last three years or so. But he was expecting a reduction of no more than 5 percent - not 20 percent.
The total administration proposed cut is $659 million below the FY 2008 level, Brown's report says. It would decrease Ohio's CDBG share by $29 million, if the president's budget prevails. The stipulations are not final, but Brown said the president's budget is the framework from which Congress works.
The Firefighter's Assistance Grants, which Celina Fire Chief Doug Kuhn said most fire departments in Mercer County have used to get updated equipment in recent years, may be cut. The Bush administration would eliminate the $925 program altogether.
Last year, 242 fire departments in Ohio got $23.8 million to better protect firefighters and the public. Celina's fire department used the grant money to purchase apparatus that filters air in smoky situations.
"We'll all have to sharpen our pencils," Kuhn said about a push to write legislators about the need for the program in rural areas.
Another program that the president's budget would eliminate is the Edward Bryne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (the Bryne JAG program). That is the grant program that Celina Police Chief Dave Slusser says has kept the department's computers up and running for the past 10 years.
"Every major technical improvement and update since the mid 1990s has been paid for by this grant money," Slusser said. The help includes the soon-to-arrive radio improvements under this year's allotment.
Computer and radio upgrades are the only federal funding program from which officers on the street see a direct benefit, Slusser declared.
He had just come back from a police chief's convention where much of the discussion was how to get the funding back in the budget, he said.
Under Bryne JAG program, the funding was not competitive. "If you had a good program and a need, you applied and got some help. Now everything is competitive. We will have to compete against larger cities for the money," Slusser said."
Other programs cuts that Brown said has a big impact on the quality of life is a reduction of $249 million for direct water and sewer grants to build or upgrade systems in rural communities to provide safe drinking water and sewer infrastructure needs.
The Ohio EPA has estimated that over the next 20 years there needs to be an investment of more than $22 billion to address those water needs, Brown's report says. The EPA is already behind in funds to do so.
Brown's report says big cuts in Medicare have been proposed for traditional fee-for-service programs (as opposed to group or HMO programs), which are most often found in rural areas. The budget calls for $186 billion in cuts over five years to hospitals, nursing homes and other health providers who provide fee-for-service care. Medicare payments for ambulances, also is being cut as is Medicaid payments.
Other cuts include career and technical education programs, after-school programs, special education, low income home energy programs and farm-based renewable energy programs, his report says.
The budget, as presented, is not the final word on funding programs. Brown said his report was aimed at educating rural Ohioans to the problems presented and encourage them to present their views to legislators.
It is likely that more department heads than Kuhn are sharpening their pencils.