MARYSVILLE — Volunteers gathered on Thursday morning at the Marysville Community Food Bank to pack food into shopping bags.
It was a fast moving assembly line with about 30 volunteers filling the bags with soup, tuna, peanut butter and other nonperishable foodstuffs. Later that day, several of the volunteers delivered the bags to local schools. On Friday, students took them home so they had enough to eat over the weekend.
“We found out in 2012 that there were children going home on the weekends without any food,” said Amy Howell, assistant director of the food bank and the manager of the bank’s Food for Thought backpack program.
The program initially was launched at one school, helping 25 kids, but quickly expanded to where it now serves about 400 children each week in 22 schools in the Marysville and Lakewood school districts.
Howell purchases the food for the program from Northwest Harvest and Grocery Outlet. It’s kept separate from the food bank’s usual stocks.
“It was one of the stipulations of the program. If I wanted to do it, I had to create the funding,” Howell said.
A big help in expanding the program was the award of a Community Development Block Grant. The first grant of about $3,000 came in 2012. That grew to $15,000 in 2016 and the Marysville City Council also approved $15,000 for the year, starting July 1.
“It was the first grant I’ve ever written and it was the first grant we received,” Howell said.
Community Development Block Grants are administered by local governments, but the money is federal: It’s a $3 billion entitlement program in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development intended to help local governments enhance housing, quality of life and economic opportunities, especially for low-income people.
The program also is under threat. Nestled among $54 billion in cuts the Trump administration wants to entitlement programs, the block grant program is one of several the president wants to eliminate entirely. Even a temporary federal government shutdown would cut off a funding to numerous local programs.
“Those programs that are scheduled to start July 1 wouldn’t,” said Mary Jane Vujovic, director of Snohomish County’s Department of Human Services, which administers about $2.7 million in block grant funds. “We as a department have very, very minuscule reserves.”
Since 1974, Community Development Block Grants have pumped billions of dollars into local communities across the United States. Affordable Housing Online, a database of federal housing assistance programs, estimates that the program has funded $2.5 billion in community projects in Washington state since 1977.
In addition to the county’s $2.7 million allocation, the city of Everett hopes to receive about $730,000 for its own list of projects for the 12 months starting July 1, and Marysville is counting on $345,000 to come in.
If the block grants were ended, Washington state would lose $51.4 million annually, which is nearly half of all funding the state receives from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to Affordable Housing Online.
All that money buys a lot of things: in addition to food backpacks, the grants next year could help pay for Cocoon House’s and HopeWorks’ housing programs, water mains and firefighting equipment in Darrington, transportation services for Catholic Community Services, a park shelter in Sultan, the Meals on Wheels program run by Homage Senior Services in Snohomish County, county-wide programs to pay for minor home repairs or weatherization, and many more.
A block grant also is an important statement of local government support for projects that can be used to leverage more money from other sources.
“It’s significant in putting a local stamp on the project,” said Ed Petersen, the chief strategic officer for HopeWorks, which is building a $29 million project near Everett Station that will include housing and a job training program for homeless people.
The HopeWorks Station II project is slated to receive a $200,000 block grant in the coming funding cycle. That, in turn, would be used to leverage another $3 million in New Market Tax Credits (another federal program at risk), an allocation from the Legislature of up to $2.7 million, about $2.6 million in local philanthropy, and a couple sizable grants from large national foundations, Petersen said.
“This is evidence that our community cares about this development and wants it to succeed,” Petersen said.
The Trump administration’s initial budget proposal, known as a “skinny budget,” is just that: a proposal for funding the government for the next fiscal year starting Oct. 1, 2017.
Both the Snohomish County Council and the Everett City Council are scheduled to consider their lists of recommended grant recipients in the coming weeks. Local governments then have to apply to HUD for that funding by May 15.
Usually, local government would have received notice from HUD by now about how much funding it should expect, said Becky McCrary, Everett’s housing and community development program manager. That hasn’t happened.
“We don’t know how much we’ll get,” McCrary said. The figure the city is working with — $730,914 — is about 95 percent of what the city received last year.
“But last year we only received 90 percent of what we received from the year before, so honestly the trend is not great,” she said.
The program’s funding has been flat in recent years, while more cities grow larger than a population of 50,000, the threshold for eligibility in the program.
“Every year, more cities achieve that milestone so the pie gets cut a little thinner,” McCrary said.
Housing Hope, a sister nonprofit of HopeWorks, is hoping for two block grants totalling about $123,000 through the county. That money would provide about 20 percent of the funding for two programs that provide housing and social services for homeless teen and adult parents.
The programs currently serve 200 adult parents and 35 teen parents, said Elizabeth Kohl, the director of social services for Housing Hope.
Without that funding, there just wouldn’t be an easy way to make up the shortfall.
“We just wouldn’t be able to serve that many people,” she said. “How else do you say that, that you’ll have more homeless families?”
The only answer would be to work even harder with local communities to ensure families don’t lose their homes.
“At the end of the day, when we build housing, especially in some of the rural areas, it’s because we’re working with local people and local government to solve the homelessness problem in their communities,” Kohl said.
Fire Station 38 at the corner of Swede Heaven Road and Highway 530 is one of two stations that serve Fire District 24, a mountainous area with about 3,000 people living in Darrington and the nearby river valleys.
Fire and emergency services are handled by a crew of about 12 people working part-time, most of whom are volunteers and have other jobs.
The district has begun a renovation project on the station, which is essentially a garage for three emergency vehicles, that will nearly double its size. The plans call for adding two new bays for aid cars, a meeting room with a kitchen, and two bathrooms compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Jeff McClelland, the district’s medical division chief, said the renovations wouldn’t have been possible without $543,000 in block grant funding he’d received over the past several years to cover much of the project’s cost.
“We had to cough up about $200,000,” McClelland said. That came out of the district’s reserves , but he’s hopeful some of that money could be recouped from donations or other grants.
It’s not an unreasonable thought. McClelland said he’s secured $1.7 million in various grants in the past two years, paying for a new ATV modified for mountain rescue operations and tablet computers for reporting patient information to hospitals.
Community Development Block Grants paid for a new four-wheel-drive ambulance with a heavy-duty gurney, which together cost $186,450 last year. Three years ago, the district bought a $357,000 fire engine through the grant.
The new vehicles have the added effect of lowering some insurance rates because it was significant improvement to health care in the district, he said. “Everything we had was almost 30 years old,” McClelland said.
Without the block grants, McClelland would have had to find other sources of grant money or cut services. The rural district doesn’t have the economic base of wealthier towns and cities.
“We can’t go to them and say ‘we want to raise your taxes to pay for a new engine,’” he said.
Instead, the station expansion probably would not happen. “We couldn’t do it any other way,” McClelland said.
The same economic reality led the town of Darrington to seek block grant funding to replace its aging water mains.
Last year the mains along North Emens Avenue were replaced at a cost of $307,500, and the town hopes to do Givens Avenue and North Montague Avenue in the coming year with grants of $210,000 and $291,000, respectively.
“When it comes to water, it’s a safety issue. Our public water system is one of the things all of our communities rely to be absolutely safe 100 percent of the time,” said Mayor Dan Rankin.
Losing the grants as a source of funding, Rankin said, “would be a travesty for every small rural community in Snohomish County and the state of Washington.”
Cocoon House, a nonprofit that provides a wide variety of services to homeless youth, has long been reliant on a variety of government funding sources, including Community Development Block Grants.
Last year, CEO Cassie Franklin said, Cocoon House received $540,000 in block grant funding. This year, the organization is hoping to receive at about $250,000, plus a separate $300,000 grant to help build a new service center. That would come from the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, another HUD program also slated to be eliminated.
For larger nonprofits like Cocoon House and HopeWorks, the power of the block grants is in their ability to open the doors to other funding. Cocoon House’s funding comes from five different federal grants, plus state money, corporate or charitable donations and contributions from individual donors and community groups.
“We as an organization have done everything we can to diversify our funding resources,” Franklin said, and even then, loss of the block grant funding would be a blow for Cocoon House.
“We’re going to see a number of programs go away and we’re going to see the number of problems in our community grow,” she said.
At Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary School on the Tulalip Indian Reservation, about 80 percent of the students receive free or reduced price lunches. Up to 75 kids at the school this year have been receiving groceries through the food bank’s Food For Thought program.
“I have kids who start asking me Monday morning, ‘Is there going to be Food For Thought on Friday?’” said Moiya Rossnagle, the family liaison at the school.
This school year, up to 75 kids at the school have taken home food, and Rossnagle believes that’s helping them maintain attendance.
“It’s hard to come to school when you’re hungry,” Rossnagle said.
A 25 percent hit to the program’s budget wouldn’t be fatal, but it would mean looking elsewhere for the money, said Dell Deierling, the food bank’s executive director.
But every other organization losing their grant support will also be out pursuing the diminishing number of funding sources.
“Or another way of looking at it is not feeding 100 kids,” Deierling said.