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Valley HUD grant got low marks



Published: Fri, January 22, 2010 @ 12:10 a.m.

A Youngstown councilman wants a city employee to be disciplined for the grant application’s failure.

By DAVID SKOLNICK

VINDICATOR POLITICS WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN — A federal agency rejected the Mahoning Valley’s $32.4 million housing plan because it “failed to show they had the capacity and ability to carry out the proposal.”

That’s what Andrea D. Mead, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, told The Vindicator on Thursday about why the agency rejected the Valley’s proposal for money from a program to spur development and create jobs in the area.

The application, spearheaded by Youngstown for nine Valley communities, didn’t provide information as to how it would implement the program if it received the grant, Mead said.

“That was a huge criteria,” she said.

How the city administration handled the HUD application didn’t sit well with Youngstown Councilman DeMaine Kitchen, D-2nd, who was among the Valley contingent that met Wednesday with HUD officials in Washington, D.C.

“There were some incorrect assumptions by the city about certain information that wasn’t in there or wasn’t needed,” he said. “That’s why [the proposal] never got traction out of the gate.”

Kitchen said “the buck stops” with Bill D’Avignon, the city’s community development director, and Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams.

“From a personal perspective, you do say there needs to be some type of reprimand in place,” he said. The grant would have provided funding — including $11 million for Youngstown and $10 million for Warren — for housing demolitions and rehabilitation, land and property acquisition, money for down payments and closing costs to low- and middle-income home buyers, and create land banks.

The Valley communities that were part of the proposal were Youngstown, Warren, Niles, Girard, Campbell, Struthers, Lowellville, McDonald and Newton Falls.

HUD received 482 applications, and approved funding for 79.

The Valley application failed to get out of the first round when a HUD committee gave it a score of 15 out of 40 points for “past experience” and “management structure” categories.

D’Avignon, who spearheaded the proposal, said its rejection by HUD shows that “we don’t have the capacity to implement effective competitive grants” in competition with larger cities.

HUD gave the Valley proposal a zero out of 10 points for “management structure,” he said.

“They felt there was an uncertainty as to our ability to adequately accomplish what we wanted to do,” D’Avignon said.

Also, the proposal failed to include a list of past accomplishments, such as Youngstown demolishing about 2,000 vacant properties since 2006.

D’Avignon said it was unclear to him whether the HUD application required that information.

HUD officials told a contingent from the Valley at a Wednesday meeting in Washington, D.C., that information was necessary.

D’Avignon admitted, in hindsight, that information should have been emphasized in the application.

“We didn’t pick up on that,” he said. “They didn’t ask for it clearly. It didn’t occur to us.”

To review the Valley’s complete application for the HUD funding, visit Vindy.com.

The city doesn’t have enough staff in its CDA office, which also includes the planning department, to submit such applications, D’Avignon said.

“We aren’t as effective as everyone else who got grants apparently,” he said.

Two HUD officials scored the Valley application, with one giving it 111 points and the other giving it 77 points out of 150 possible points, D’Avignon said.

A successful application needed a score of at least 115 to be considered for funding.

D’Avignon pointed to the large difference between the two HUD scores on the Valley application, saying the evaluation was too subjective.

D’Avignon said late Thursday that he’d provide copies of the two HUD officials’ reports to The Vindicator today.

Councilman Kitchen was not moved by the discussion of staffing levels.

“I recognize our staffing level isn’t enough,” he said. “If you don’t have the resources, contract it out.”

When he heard how the Valley’s application scored, Kitchen said, “My wheels started spinning and I thought that some heads need to roll. Quite frankly, I was embarrassed we raised a lot of sand by pointing the finger at everyone else when the onus is on us. We don’t have the staff, but we do have people who can read” applications.

Williams said neither D’Avignon nor anyone else would be disciplined for the city’s application and the failure to obtain HUD funds.

The mayor said the application’s shortcomings were failing to convey “the experience and expertise” of the city.

When HUD rejected the Valley application last week, Williams blasted the agency’s decision saying, “It literally defies belief and explanation.”

On Thursday, a day after the HUD meeting, Williams said his reaction was a “natural” one as a result of the “frustration and anger we have anytime we feel the Valley was bypassed because of politics.”

While D’Avignon spearheaded the plan, it was also reviewed by others, including Ian Beniston and Heather McMahon of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative.

Both have recently left the MVOC for other jobs.

Beniston, who is now assistant director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., said the MVOC “provided input, review and edited” the application.

He declined to discuss the issue further.

McMahon is now the press secretary for U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, who was a vocal critic last week of HUD’s rejection of the Valley plan.

When asked to comment about her involvement, McMahon sent an e-mail to The Vindicator stating “no comment.”

After refusing to speak to a reporter by telephone, McMahon wrote that any questions about MVOC should be answered by its executive director.

“If you have specific questions about Congressman Ryan, you can ask me,” she added.

McMahon was asked about Ryan’s reaction to HUD’s comments about the weakness being with the local application.

She wrote: “The congressman gave you his reaction yesterday on the conference call.”

During that call, Ryan said he expects to hear something about real help from the federal government for the Valley in a few weeks.

“We don’t want someone coming to the Mahoning Valley and saying they’re going to partner with us,” he said Wednesday. “Another administrative official coming to the Mahoning Valley to make a gesture isn’t going to work. No one believes them anymore.”

After McMahon declined to comment further, Rick Leonard, Ryan’s district director, e-mailed The Vindicator.

He wrote that questions about the MVOC should go to its executive director and that “Heather would be happy to assist” with questions for Ryan.

He repeated that same message in response to an e-mail asking for a comment on HUD’s statement.

Also, D’Avignon had Sarah Sole, a CDA intern and the daughter of his girlfriend, Gemma Sole, edit the grant application when it was submitted in July.

Sarah Sole has a journalism degree from Youngstown State University and now works as a correspondent for a Warren newspaper.

When asked if he saw a conflict with hiring his girlfriend’s daughter, D’Avignon said, “I have no problem, obviously.”

skolnick@vindy.com


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