Maryland feels pinch of thinning federal dollars

BALTIMORE -- Where Anthony Hurt once saw rubble and litter, he now sees a bright mural. From his second-story window, the view of drugs and decay has given way to sunflowers and trees.

More than 150 formerly vacant lots in this city, which is often derided for its high rate of violent crime, have been transformed into community parks — in part with the help of federal grants.

"It's what most neighborhoods need, instead of a dead lot," says Hurt, 52, who lives across the street from the new park. "It helps bring back up the neighborhood."

Urban governments rely on federal grants to pay for job training, police and even community parks. But many grant programs have been deeply cut in recent years, forcing local governments to find the money elsewhere or forgo services.

Reductions have hit especially hard in Baltimore, Maryland's largest city, which had 282 homicides last year, according to FBI statistics. The Census Bureau estimates that about 20% of Baltimore residents live in poverty.

"We rely heavily on those grants to revitalize neighborhoods and communities, to create opportunities for citizens," says Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, a Democrat. "Over the last eight years … we've lost a great deal of grant money."

Party enrollment figures favor Democrats 2-to-1 in Maryland, giving Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama a significant advantage over Republican nominee John McCain. Both candidates have voiced support for grant programs that would help this state's poorest communities.

Obama would "roll back" cuts made to some programs, according to a campaign statement that offered few specifics about what he believes is an appropriate level of spending. McCain's campaign says the Republican would focus more attention on especially needy neighborhoods while reducing administrative costs.

Fixing up neighborhoods

Baltimore has 11,200 vacant lots and 16,200 abandoned structures, says Cheron Porter, a spokeswoman with the city's Department of Housing and Community Development. Block after block of vacant and crumbling homes attract crime and rats and lower property values, according to a 2007 report by the agency.

Martha Best's east Baltimore neighborhood was strong when she moved in 35 years ago, she says. Now, every home on her block but five is boarded up. A police camera hangs on a utility pole at the end of the street.

In the past year, the city leveled buildings on two corner lots near her front steps. That has brought hope.

"I told them when they knock down, I don't want an empty lot," says Best, 76. "They would be dumping trash and junk and stuff in them. That's worse than the houses being there."

Under a program called Civic Works, teams of AmeriCorps members are building two landscaped gardens on the lots. The non-profit group uses donated plants and stones. Among other things, federal grant money keeps gas in the organization's backhoe.

Costs for programs such as Civic Works, which was founded 15 years ago, continue to climb. The organization's federal grant is down 42% since 1999, Executive Director Dana Stein says.

Overall, federal grants to states and cities have increased, according to Census data, but that increase is largely driven by big-ticket programs such as Medicaid, which is affected by enrollment and health care costs. Groups such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors have focused on losses of discretionary grants, such as Community Development Block Grants.

'Barely holding its own'

Block grants, which pay for services for low-income neighborhoods, have been cut by 18% since 2001, according to Federal Funds Information for States, a non-partisan research group for the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another program, which pays for local police salaries and training, fell 43% during the same period.

Marcia Howard, the research group's executive director, says that while defense and Medicaid spending increased, aid to state and local governments did not fare as well.

"Everything else is kind of barely holding its own," Howard says. "It's basically just dead in the water."

Maryland has lost money in 85 grant categories since 2005, according to data provided by the Maryland Department of Budget and Management.

Even small grants can make a big difference, recipients say.

Mac Ramsey is the executive director of the Arc of Prince George's County, an organization that provides services to disabled people. He says the $20,000 he receives in federal money helps pay for a year-long program that teaches office skills to about 60 individuals with disabilities. The training translates into higher-paying jobs for his students, he says.

"It prepares them for the world that they are going to be in," Ramsey says, estimating his federal funding is off 40% from five years ago.

Advocates say that when used effectively, the federal money can help turn communities around.

"It is absolutely an essential ingredient to keeping a program like this going," says John Ciekot, projects director for Civic Works. "There's a sense of partnership here … to do something that is respectful and makes a positive influence on people's minds and property values."