Edgartown selectmen say grant changes would harm Island families

Selectmen signed a letter opposing proposed changes in community development grant rules.

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Edgartown selectmen voted unanimously to revoke a taxi driver's license after seven violations. — The Martha's Vineyard Times file photo

At Monday’s brief regular meeting, Edgartown selectmen signed a letter in which they opposed proposed changes in a state grant program they said would impact Island families who depend on the program. The proposed changes may not seem onerous, but town leaders said they could have a much broader impact than meets the eye.

The letter is addressed to Mark Southward of the Department of Housing and Community Development. It outlines the selectmen’s displeasure with the department’s proposed changes to the fiscal year (FY) 2017 Community Development Block Grant (CDBG).

Under the proposed changes, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs, which also receives the grant funding, will have to make their one-year grant total (typically close to $1 million) stretch to two years, and they can only apply for funding to support one program.

“The proposed changes are dramatic, and serve to eliminate services to our most needy residents, potentially decimating the highly successful housing rehabilitation and childcare subsidy programs,” selectmen Arthur Smadbeck, Michael Donaroma, and Margaret Serpa said.

Town administrator Pam Dolby told the selectmen that the grant’s impact on the Island is substantial.

“The housing rehab money is used not to redo a house; it’s for repairs that affect their quality of life,” Ms. Dolby said. She also told the selectmen that the housing rehabilitation program has helped many elderly homeowners, and that low- to middle-income parents count on the childcare subsidies.

Island impact

Alice Boyd at Bailey Boyd Associates, with a Cape and Islands office based in Scituate, works on writing the CDBG grants and helps administer the funds once they’re procured.

“What’s happening now would have a much larger impact than people realize,” Ms. Boyd told The Times.

“The grants create a lot of winter jobs that impact the Island’s childcare agencies, and we’re spending $600,000 to $700,000 a year that goes to contractors through the housing rehabilitation program. There’s a lot of work being created through these programs,” she said.

Ms. Boyd said the cost of running the state-funded childcare subsidy and the housing rehabilitation programs is significant, and requires staff familiar with navigating the mountains of paperwork involved. With the proposed funding arriving every other year and the grant funding amount staying at one-year levels, Ms. Boyd said, staffing would take a hit.

“Staff would have to take a half-pay cut or be laid off every other year,” she said. “Who’s going to take a job like that?”

Ms. Boyd explained that the childcare subsidy program offers parents up to $5,000 a year to offset their family’s childcare expenses. Applications for the subsidy can be found at baileyboyd.com.

“These childcare subsidies have been tremendous in allowing parents to work while offsetting the cost of childcare. On the Island, when there’s work, you have to take it. People live by their wits on the Island, and they need to make sure their kids are well taken care of while they do it,” she said.

The housing rehabilitation program, administered through the Resource for Community and Economic Development, offers up to $35,000 to low-to middle-income homeowners to fix things like septic tanks, foundations, windows — not cosmetic repairs. Island native Melissa Vincent is program manager for the program on Martha’s Vineyard. She’s been there for nine years, and said the CBDG keeps homes safe for elderly and low- to moderate-income families.

“We had a man and his wife in their late seventies, and their home was uninhabitable,” Ms. Vincent said. “They needed a new roof, new heating system, handicapped ramp, an accessible bathroom … we were able to get that work done. Later on, he got sick, and if that work hadn’t been done, he would’ve had to go into a long-term nursing facility. We do projects like this all the time.”

Both programs have strict income guidelines, and both typically have waitlists, Ms. Boyd said.

Edgartown’s CBDG includes the communities of Aquinnah, Chilmark, Gosnold, and West Tisbury. Oak Bluffs’ grant also covers Tisbury, Ms. Boyd explained. She said Edgartown has received the grant monies for the past dozen years, and Oak Bluffs for even longer. She explained that an advisory committee determined that childcare and housing rehabilitation were the two most immediate needs in the Island community.

“Edgartown has probably gotten around $8 million over the years, and Oak Bluffs, probably around $12 to $15 million,” Ms. Boyd said.

Public hearings on the proposed grant changes are happening this week in Boston, not a convenient location for Island residents to get to, Ms. Boyd explained.

“You can call or write letters up to Sept. 22, when they’ll make a decision,” she said.

Ms. Boyd said it’s easy for people up in Boston to forget that people on Martha’s Vineyard live in a seasonal economy.

“People in Boston don’t always realize that there’s a line around the block at the food pantry here. The impression is it’s where presidents go for vacation,” she said.

Island residents can send letters to Mark Southard, Dept. of Housing and Community Development, 100 Cambridge Street, Suite 300, Boston, MA 02115, or call Chrystal Kornegay, undersecretary of DHCD, at 617-573-1100.