Giving Us Back Our Money

Part of Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie’s proposal to change Wheeling’s tax structure is designed to raise about $700,000 a year more to meet the city’s infrastructure needs. That includes streets, bridges, sidewalks, etc.

City officials do an excellent job of stretching current budget allocations for the purpose, but they say more will be needed in the future. One intriguing thought is that the mayor’s idea could be used to boost economic development. As matters stand, if a company approached McKenzie with a proposal for, say, a new plant employing 200 people, the mayor and City Manager Robert Herron would have to be careful in promising aid such as new access roads, waterlines, etc. The $700,000 might help in that regard.

But strictly to meet needs anticipated now, McKenzie and Herron say more money is needed. One reason for that is they cannot count on some traditional sources of funding, such as the federal Community Development Block Grant program.

CDBG officials are sending less and less money to Wheeling. Herron expects the city will receive about $1.03 million for the coming year, compared to $1.12 million now. That expected cut, about $90,000, prompted city officials to slash funding for the Wheeling Human Rights Commission.

Although the city is permitted to spend up to 15 percent of its CDBG allocation for “public services” rather than capital expenditures, the amount used for purposes such as the police department and social programs including the Nelson Jordan Center and Wheeling Health Right may have to be cut even more in the future.

There is every reason to believe that, as members of Congress search for ways to reduce federal spending, the CDBG program will suffer.

Already, CDBG has been hit hard. In 2001, the program doled out $4.7 billion to local governments. By fiscal 2012 the allocation was down to $3.88 billion. Taking inflation into account, about $6 billion would have been required to give local governments the same purchasing power as the $4.7 billion in 2001.

It is part of a pattern. Some local government veterans remember the old Revenue Sharing program. Between 1972-86, it handed out about $5 billion to local governments.

Wise local officials used Revenue Sharing money only for capital expenditures – “extras” such as street paving, city hall renovations, etc. But many got hooked on Revenue Sharing, building the money into their operating budgets. When the funding dried up, they had to cut services and/or raise taxes.

The decline in CDBG money has forced Wheeling to do just that, as evidenced by the Human Rights Commission cut.

What is especially galling about programs such as Revenue Sharing and CDBG is that it’s all our money.

Federal officials take it from us in taxes, then make a show of handing miniscule portions of it back to us. As I’ve pointed out, the U.S. Department of Education is a great example of that. West Virginia’s education budget includes about $473 million in federal funds, most of it with strings attached on how we can spend the money.

Next year, incidentally, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin projects Washington will cut the allocation slightly, to $459.5 million.

Again, it’s our money. I suspect Mountain State educators, freed from the red tape that goes with accepting the federal funding, could spend it more effectively.

Look, too, at the Medicaid program. Washington has changed some of the rules on it and is reducing the share of West Virginia’s program it funds. That is without expanding the program as the “Obamacare” law envisions.

Federal funding for local and state governments contributes greatly to the increasing cost of running municipalities, counties and states. Uncle Sam funds local and state programs long enough to get people hooked on them, then reduces or eliminates the programs. Meanwhile, nothing ever gets cut or eliminated in Washington.

Myer can be reached at