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Residents Show Up In Force to Oppose the Transfer of Community Block Grant Funds to City Coffers

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss and Jan Christensen

A public hearing took place Thursday, July 26, at Milwaukee Education Center (MEC), housed in buildings from the old Schlitz brewery at 1615 N. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive. Three hundred people showed up and 51 testified in a tightly controlled forum on spending proposals for federal grant monies targeted to low and moderate income residents. The original Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) public hearing was rescheduled after 300 people showed up for a July 18 meeting at the Department of Natural Resources building on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and the citizens demanded a larger room so everyone could hear and participate. A final hearing at City Hall was scheduled for Tuesday, July 30, after the Currents went to press. The future of CDBG funding for neighborhood groups such as the YMCA-Holton Youth Center, LGBT Center, Woodland Pattern, COA Youth and Family Centers, and YMCA CDC is at stake. The events leading up to and following the cancellation of the July 18 meeting are a story of their own. The crowd included African Americans, Hispanics, Hmongs, and other Asians, as well as European-Americans. There were many young people in the crowd with large signs concerning proposed cuts to youth programs, and representatives from a large number of community based organizations. All were there to address cuts to community organizing. As the first speaker finished to loud applause, the community organizer from Harambee, Craig Wroton, stood up and addressed the members of the Community Development Committee of the Common Council who were there to take testimony. Wroton told the Aldermen that there were many people out in the hallway who could not hear the proceedings, and could not fit into the room. He pointed out that this was unfair and inappropriate, and suggested that the hearing be moved to a larger venue. This suggestion was met with loud applause and cheers. Ald. Richards, chair of the committee, asked for a show of hands of people who wished to move to a larger venue, and the majority of people in the room raised their hands. He asked how many wanted to proceed at that time, and one person raised her hand. The crowd continued to be very vocal, and Ald. Richards suggested they might wish to have two meetings, “one where we can all shout at each other, and another where we can conduct the hearing.” This was met by unfriendly comments from the assembled citizens. Ald. Richards then apologized for the problem, saying he had not chosen the venue for the hearing, to which a number of people loudly replied, “Who did?” At that point, Ald. Richards got out his calendar, and suggested that the hearing be held the following week. He would have to let us know the date and time. Asked how he was going to let people know, he replied, “The same way we let you know about this meeting.” This was met by laughter from the crowd, since information about the budget recommendations had been released only six days before the original hearings on July 17 and 18. As the crowd left the building, there was a feeling of anger at the city. Many had choice words to say about the inappropriate size of the venue, with speculation that it was chosen to discourage participation. After the meeting was postponed, organizers met in informal groups in the hallway and outside, sharing information and strategies. Finally on the 26th at MEC, citizens were able to give testimony. Riverwest was well represented by folks from the Riverwest Neighborhood Association (RNA), Riverwest Co-op, Riverwest Currents, Greenfolks Garden and a resident who had her home repaired by the YMCA CDC using CDBG funds in the Neighborhood Improvement Program (NIP). All asked that funding be kept for neighborhood groups to do organizing, youth programs, and housing. One citizen from another neighborhood questioned the legality of the CDBG administration proposal to use funds for city infrastructure costs. No citizen spoke in favor of the city administration”s proposal to divert money from neighborhood groups to city projects. In fact, it is only because of the delay in holding the meeting that anyone knew any details of the city’s proposal to shift millions of dollars to city department projects. The property tax savings of the shift of CDBG dollars to the city are in the range of $20 to $26 for a $75,000 to $100,000 home. After hearing the testimony, Chairman Alderman Richards thanked all who came to testify and gave the commitee members a chance to voice their opinion on the testimony and the city’s funding plan for CDBG monies. Alderwoman Johnson-Odom said she would not support the proposal because it took money away from neighborhood groups. Alderman Sanchez expressed concern about the defunding of groups but withheld further comment until the July 30 commitee meeting. There were no comments from Aldermen Murphy and Henningsen. Alderman Hines and Alderman Pratt were not present at the meeting’s end. The Riverwest Currents relies on block grant funds indirectly, through the use of technical support from the YMCA CDC. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 7 – August 2002
by Sonya Jongsma Knauss and Jan Christensen