ST. GEORGE — On March 16, President Trump released his proposed budget blueprint. In the included “President’s Message” to Congress, Trump said, “We have made tough choices that have been put off for too long.” If enacted, one of these tough choices could be the elimination of funding to county government associations that help facilitate programs such as job training, aging services, maintaining public lands and small business financing, among others.
The Five County Association of Governments is one of these associations. Formally established in 1972, the Five County AOG serves 37 Southern Utah municipalities, five countywide school districts and the jurisdictions of Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane and Washington counties.
It is governed by a committee comprising a commissioner, mayor and school board member from each county, as well as ex-officio representation from Southern Utah University and Dixie State University.
In addition to the aforementioned programs, the Five County AOG provides assistance in decision making and implementation of programs related to community and economic development, transportation planning and human services planning.
In 2016, community projects from the association totaled over $776,000 in awarded funding and included improvements to firefighting operations in LaVerkin City, Enterprise City and Washington County Northwestern Special Service District.
The Five County AOG is one of seven such Utah county government associations that could see their funding drastically cut if the president’s budget is approved.
“I’d definitely say at least three-quarters of our agency would be affected by it,” Bryan Thiriot, executive director of the association, said.
“We’re looking to see how Congress responds to Trump’s budget.”
According to the Five County AOG website, the association “operates on funding allocated from numerous federal and state contracts.” Part of this funding comes from the Community Development Block Grant – or CDBG – program, one of the longest running programs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Trump’s budget proposes “one of the largest increases in defense spending without increasing the debt.” In order to do this, it calls for cuts in discretionary spending almost across the board, including to the CDBG program.
In Trump’s message to Congress, he said: “A budget that puts America first must make the safety of our people its number one priority – because without safety, there can be no prosperity.”
This focus represents a problem for Utah’s AOGs.
“Five County (AOG) is not a national defense agency,” Thiriot said.
Programs “zeroed out” by the proposed budget, Thiriot said, include the weatherization program, HEAT assistance program, rural foster grandparent program, the Social Service Block Grant program and the Community Service Block Grant program.
“That’s our community action program to help individuals move to more self-sufficiency,” he said.
Russ Cowley, executive director for the Six County Association of Governments, told St. George News eliminating these programs would have a significant impact on the communities they serve. The Six County AOG was founded in 1969 and serves residents of Juab, Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier and Wayne counties.
“We’re trying to do our part,” Cowley said. “That’s our main mission, to try to help people become self-sufficient and to learn the lifestyle skills that they need to get on with their lives and to better their lives and their children’s lives.”
The Six County area is approximately 40 percent below the national average in median family income, Cowley said, and about 20 percent below the state average.
“It’s very difficult for people to eke out a living in these rural areas,” Cowley said, “but we choose to live here because of less congestion. There are amenities in rural areas that I think everyone likes, but you give up some of those opportunities for jobs. … We have a higher population that are just barely making it, so they end up in some situations where their housing and everything else isn’t as good as it should be.”
The CDBG funding helps the Six County AOG assist families in bettering their living situation, Cowley said, such as through the weatherization program, which identifies and remedies home energy efficiency problems, or the furnace replacement program.
“It’s very difficult to see some of those programs considered for cutting,” he said, “because if you don’t take care of those situations, the problems become worse and worse until your house becomes so dilapidated you can’t fix them. It’s kind of a way of keeping people in their homes.”
Cowley said he recognizes that there have been abuses of these programs, especially seeing as any community over a certain population threshold is entitled to the block grants, which are typically subject to less federal oversight but are rather used at the discretion of state and local governments.
“You can find a lot of scathing reports about some of the funding and how they are maybe misused,” Cowley said. “Sometimes when you start looking at the projects larger communities use their CDBG funds for, they’re really not what was intended to be used by CDBG. … When you get down to those rural counties like us, those little pots of money become mainstays in a lot of the programs that we do.”
The Six County AOG doesn’t only help individuals but also local businesses. For example, Cowley said, many businesses are finding that they need to come into compliance with standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“How does a community go and actually meet that criteria?” he said “They can go to programs like CDGB and actually get funding to put in handicap ramps perhaps or put in restrooms that are ADA accessible.”
Besides improvements, some businesses may not have been able to even open their doors without the help of the association. Cowley cited the Revolving Loan Fund program, which is administered through the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a bureau within the U.S. Department of Commerce, also on the chopping block.
Cowley mentioned a business in the Six County AOG’s jurisdiction that was underfunded when they got up and running. He said:
We got a letter from the bank that basically told us they were out seeking help because their policies would not allow them to put any more money into this business. … We went in and sat down with the owner and put some requirements that he attend a business class and a couple things, and we ended up giving him $10,000 to keep the cash flow working in their business. That was 10 years ago. That business is still up and running and very viable. I look at it and I think, ‘The bank would’ve shut that business down.’
When looked at as a sum-total, Cowley said, all of these programs have a chain reaction effect on the communities.
“One of the commissioners came up to me one day,” Cowley said, “and he says, ‘I really don’t know what we as communities would do if we didn’t have you guys in place. … It’s so nice to have a source that when we have people who come up to us and say “We have this issue and this issue,” we can send them to you … and you can help them or at least give some kind of help to them. If those programs go away, our communities would not be able to take care of those kinds of individuals.’”
For Thiriot, it is these kinds of stories that Utah’s congressional delegates need to hear.
“I’m not in a position to lobby one way or another,” Thiriot said. “I’m not going to do that, but if the public feels like through education that these programs have been making a difference and they’d like to continue seeing them … it’s (Congress’) prerogative to come up with a federal budget for fiscal year 2018.”
Cowley said he would agree with and that they understand the need for budget cuts.
“We understand that whole-heartedly,” he said. “Every organization and agency, there are things you could take a lot of the fat out and save money. I don’t think any of us are opposed to any of those things. Our message is, if you’re going to cut the whole program out, what do you do with the people we are serving? It falls back onto the local governments, and the local governments really in our area don’t have the resources to take care of a lot of the needs we’re servicing.”
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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.