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Block Grants Go To Everybody But Those In Need Idaho Communities Depend On Federal Funds, But Poor Do Without

Thu., July 6, 1995

Millions in federal tax dollars meant to help Idaho’s poorest residents with housing are going to support beer brewers, ski resorts, automotive dealerships and water-sewer systems.

About $10 million a year helps businesses and other pursuits while thousands of Idahoans live in cars and tents, the Idaho Statesman reported.

Despite a critical shortage of affordable housing, Idaho has spent only 6 percent of the federal Community Development Block Grant money in that area since the state began running the program 13 years ago. The national average has been four times as high: 26 percent.

No housing projects were awarded in Idaho this year. Nearly all of the competitive grants went to city water-sewer projects, subsidizing the utility bills of small towns.

More than $33 million has been spent subsidizing at least 115 businesses since 1982, including brewer Anheuser-Busch Co., a Jerome car dealership, and privately owned Schweitzer Mountain Resort.

An early history of bungled loans to risky ventures sent $2 million of tax money down the tubes and nearly caused the federal government to yank Idaho’s funding.

“The money was intended to help poor people, and it should,” said Wayne Forrey, a Meridian grant consultant who worked with the program in 1987-88. “I’m frustrated with what I’m seeing. This money could be used for a lot more.”

Congress is taking a hard look at the national program. One proposal would cut funding by 28 percent. Idaho’s annual share would drop from $10.1 million to $7.3 million.

Mayors shudder at the thought.

It is the biggest pot of federal money small cities rely upon for street, water and sewer projects. City leaders say it is essential to small towns for cleaner drinking water, senior citizen centers and jobs.

Not everyone agrees the program is geared toward helping the poor.

“Not enough attention is given to low-income housing in Idaho,” said Idaho Migrant Council Director Humberto Fuentes, whose agency operates five migrant projects.

“When you propose to beautify downtown Nampa or help business, everyone is happy. But when you propose low-income housing, everybody is up in arms.”

Economic development is the top priority in Idaho.

Taxes helped pay for new machinery for a Jerome car dealership, utilities for Anheuser-Busch in Idaho Falls, and a new road for Schweitzer Mountain Resort.

Large grants - some $500,000 or more - have subsidized Idaho businesses since 1982, according to state and federal records. Nobody knows for sure exactly who benefited, because no agency keeps track.

Two weeks ago, three more development grants were awarded. The city of Victor got $500,000 to fix up its downtown.

A $250,000 grant for the town of Kootenai will pay for road improvements to help the Coldwater Creek Catalog Co. expand.

A $260,000 grant for Heyburn will extend water and sewer lines to Interstate 84 to help Bailey Oil Co. and Magic Valley International truck dealership expand.

It is no surprise that Idaho hands out more of its money to businesses than other states do. The agency overseeing it is the Idaho Department of Commerce.

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