EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 16, 2007

Grant reduction swings ax at community programs

By Zach Church , Staff writer

METHUEN - A drop of $287,000 in federal grant money could mean cuts to a literacy program, YMCA scholarships, Methuen Arlington Neighborhood Inc. and discounted bus tickets for senior citizens and people with disabilities.

In past years - money first started coming in 1981 - the city received $602,000 in federal funds through a community development grant program. But the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the federal grant, reclassified Methuen last December into a category requiring the city to compete with others for money.

Last month, the news came that this year's award would be $315,000.

Mayor William Manzi will have to decide where to make the cuts. But first, a public hearing will be held Wednesday to allow residents to debate about how to use the remaining money.

State officials, however, say the drop in funding actually is a sign of positive developments in Methuen. Economic indicators show improvement in the city, and therefore it is in need of less of this money.

Methuen also hadn't spent all of last year's grant money, Housing and Community Development spokesman Phil Hailer said.

"At face value, you might think it's a negative thing, and it isn't," Hailer said. "It's a good sign that the community is on the upswing economically."

Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen, sees things a little less black and white.

"It's good news and bad news," Baddour said. "(The) numbers show a decrease in the poverty rate, but then you're getting cut in terms of funding."

Some cuts already have been made.

The city will put about $130,000 toward rehabilitating four housing units for low- to moderate-income families. That's down from $292,500 last year. Also, directors of a home-buyers certification course funded by the grant at $10,000 did not apply for funds this year. And grant administration costs, governed by the size of the grant, will drop more than $50,000. Those costs pay for staff, training, supplies and mileage reimbursements.

Still, more than $60,000 still must be cut from a variety of social service programs that receive grant funding.

That could come from Arlington Neighborhood youth services and job training, a reduced-price, bus-ticket program for the elderly, the library's literacy program and scholarship money distributed by the YMCA.

"Nothing is essentially set in stone, just that we have to make cuts," said Matthew Kraunelis, Manzi's chief of staff. "We're expecting their cuts could be across the board."

Kraunelis said Manzi hopes to decide what cuts will be made soon after Wednesday's hearing.

Arguments against cutting from certain programs will be strong.

Corinne LaCharite, executive director of the Methuen Senior Activity Center, said seniors rely daily on the reduced-bus-ticket program - which drops one-way rides from $2 to $1.

"For people who are on dialysis who have to have medical treatment several times a week or come here to the hot-lunch program, it dramatically increases the cost of them being able to do those things," LaCharite said. "So we hate to lose the program or have it cut in any way."

Claire Whicher, 79, said she would have to cut back on volunteering for the grandparent program at Comprehensive Grammar School if the bus-ticket program is cut.

Whicher, who lives on a fixed income, said she restricts travel as it is. Right now seniors are eligible for 20 discounted tickets - or two books - each month. Cuts in the program could drive that number down.

"I have frequent doctors appointments, as elderly people do," Whicher said. "Some days I use four tickets. I'd kind of like to be able to use four books a month, but you're only allowed to take two."

At Nevins Memorial Library, a popular literacy program also faces a cut in funding. The grant last year paid $12,000 of the program's $50,000 cost.

"We have a huge demand for our program," Library Director Krista McLeod said. "We have a fairly long waiting list for people who want services."

The literacy program has served about 50 people in the last two years. It has helped non-English speakers achieve citizenship and given people the reading and writing skills necessary to secure jobs, McLeod said. The program provides one-on-one tutors at no cost to the student.

McLeod said she will attend Wednesday's public hearing to argue in favor of keeping money in the library program. However, she recognizes the challenge in making cuts to so many worthy causes.

"We feel that all the other programs are very, very good programs, too," McLeod said. "These programs do work. There's a reason there's fewer poor people (in Methuen). It's because the Arlington Neighborhood has made huge strides."

If you go

What: Public hearing on reduction in federal grant funds. Mayor William Manzi and staff from the city community development office will hear arguments about community programs facing cuts.

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Great Hall, Searles Building, 41 Pleasant St.

On the chopping block

Program%2006 funding%2007 proposal

Housing rehabilitation%$292,500%$129,937

Code enforcement%$26,000%$28,000

Methuen Arlington Neighborhood Inc. youth services%$40,000%To be decided

Methuen Arlington Neighborhood Inc. job training%$5,000%To be decided

Council on Aging transportation for seniors and disabled%$24,000%To be decided

Nevins Library literacy volunteers%$12,000%To be decided

YMCA Child Care Scholarship Program%$40,000%To be decided

Community Teamwork Inc. home-buyers certification%$10,000%None

Grant administration%$152,500%$96,401

Source: City of Methuen