Miami-Dade turns to Congress for rescue on $6 million homeless squeeze
By Doug Hanks, Miami Herald
A Miami congressman said Tuesday he would use his influence on the nation’s housing funds to make up for nearly $6 million in lost federal aid for Miami-Dade’s homeless program.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, proposed creating a $40 million pool of emergency funding for areas like Miami-Dade that lost out on federal homeless dollars in the most recent grant announcements. Diaz-Balart serves as chairman of the House appropriations committee that oversees the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and he included the additional dollars as part of the bill that sets 2017 spending for the agency.
The start of what Diaz-Balart called a “lengthy legislative process” would not provide immediate relief to Miami-Dade, which is scrambling to explain what the loss of nearly $6 million in HUD grants will mean to the county’s homeless providers. Diaz-Balart issued his statement from Washington, as county commissioners in Miami heard local officials both pledge to find a solution and emphasize how difficult it will be to secure more money.
“Any notion that there’s not going to be shared pain in this community over this cut — that would be misleading,” said Ronald Book, the chairman of Miami-Dade’s homeless board.
Already, county administrators have told charity providers backed by the federal funds to stop accepting new participants while Miami-Dade weighs whether to tap reserves, find cost savings, or secure other dollars to preserve affected services within the county’s $59 million homeless budget. On Tuesday, Book told commissioners that the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez does not plan to use the county’s $1.7 billion general fund to bail out the homeless program, which relies on a restaurant tax for about $22 million in local funding.
Federal grants are budgeted to provide $32 million for 2016, but earlier this month HUD announced awards totaling only $30 million. The actual shortfall for providers is closer to $6 million, since some existing programs received additional money and new programs qualified for dollars as well. Earlier this month, HUD turned down 25 programs seeking federal homeless money, including domestic-violence shelters, drug-treatment facilities and service providers that help with job training, rental assistance and other needs.
“The loss of these funds is catastrophic,” a tearful Pauline Trotman, director of Better Way of Miami, a drug-treatment center denied about $1 million in requested HUD funds, told commissioners. “Please help us save lives and not devastate them. We need the funding.”
While county officials say funding remains a challenge through the end of the budget year in September, they say nobody in the 700 beds linked to the federal funds will be evicted.
Commissioners did not object when Book and Jennifer Moon, Gimenez’s budget chief, said general-fund dollars are not an option for homeless programs. Property taxes make up the bulk of the general fund, which pays for police, roads, transit and other core services.
Later in the meeting, commissioners on a 8 to 1 vote approved a resolution pledging to devote 10 cents of every new dollar available from the general fund in 2017 to create affordable-housing projects, which serve low-income residents but aren’t part of the homeless system. Processing taxes related to real estate transactions (known as doc stamps) are forecast to provide about $35 million this year for affordable-housing projects, and the county reports a surplus of roughly $100 million for ongoing projects.
The new proposal, sponsored by Commissioner Xavier Suarez, has no immediate effect and still requires commissioners to approve affordable-housing funds through the regular budget process. But it sets a policy of dedicating 10 percent of new general-fund dollars to the projects. It’s unclear how much money would actually be available, since the excess would be calculated against the revenue needed to maintain current services — meaning existing revenue levels, plus the millions needed to absorb required raises for county workers, higher costs of fuel and materials, and other natural escalations. Suarez calculated the change would generate an extra $10 million, but Moon said it would be significantly less than that.
Gimenez objected to allocating general-fund dollars for affordable housing before the actual budget process begins later this year. He also said he doesn’t see the need to turn to the general fund for help with the homeless given the mix of dollars already available to those programs — including existing reserves, federal grants, and the potential for higher-than-expected restaurant taxes.
“We’re going to solve the problem,” he said. “We have some funds that are not general funds. We’re going to solve the problem.”
In a release, Diaz-Balart said he was continuing to seek answers on why HUD found Miami-Dade’s homeless programs “ineffective and its grant application to be less competitive.”
He said his bill would establish $40 million in emergency assistance for communities who lost “significant” funding in the HUD grant competition, which ended up rewarding other agencies with additional dollars while Miami-Dade received less. “I am taking action to prioritize funding for essential homeless assistance grants vital to South Florida’s most needy,” he said.