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The $5 billion federal Community Development Block Grant, which pays for everything from housing rehab to job training to programs that help battered women, isn’t just a mainstay for poor Americans.

It’s also become an irresistible slop trough for Congressional pork. As the Center for Community Change recently calculated, the amount of “set-asides” tacked on to CDBG funding by legislators during the budget process has ballooned from $10 million in 1997 to $240 million
in fiscal year 2000.

A close look at this year’s set-asides in New York State shows just where this money is going. Some of these set-aside projects are hard to criticize: for instance, a $750,000 grant to a Rochester group to encourage more housing in rural areas. Others, while completely unrelated to community development, also sound worthwhile, like $1 million to a Syracuse hospital in central New York to set up a cardiac and hemodialysis center.

Not all of them are so noble, though–and their benefit to poor neighborhoods isn’t exactly obvious.

For example: The county of Schuyler, New York got a neat $1 million in CDBG funds to “revitalize Watkins Glen International”–in other words, to fix up the local Formula One racetrack. The state’s Olympic committee also got a $3 million bankroll out of CDBG for “upgrades” to the cross-country skiing trails at Lake Placid.

“How does that benefit low- and moderate-income people?” asked Karen Stokes, executive director of the Coalition for Low-Income Community Development, which monitors CDBG funding. But, she pointed out, one man’s pork is another man’s job training or housing program. A lot of programs that help poor people get funded through this same back-door process. “What I consider to be inappropriate may not be viewed that way by someone else,” she added. “Some valuable programs may not get funded any other way.”

This year, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the block grant, has proposed to rein this excess in and cut the pork out of its budget process. Legislators have echoed the pledge in their authorization bill, which has now moved out of subcommittee.

Funding experts, though, are skeptical that this virtuous promise will survive the budget process. “Who knows what that really means,” laughed CCC’s Ed Gramlich, an expert on CDBG. “This kind of political pork barrel is just too tempting.”