City panel considers use of federal block grant funds

The City of Warren is looking to obtain funding for community development activities that will benefit low- to moderate-income (LMI) persons.

City Manager Nancy Freenock, Planning and Development Administrator David Hildebrand, and City Councilman James Zavinski met on Tuesday to discuss plans for the annual Small Communities Program (SCP) funds application.

The SCP funds are available for community development activities which either benefit low- and moderate-income persons, address slums or other conditions of blight, or meet a community development need of particular urgency.

Tuesday morning’s public hearing was the first of two hearings that will give the residents of Warren a chance to voice their opinion as to how the funds should be used. It was also an opportunity for citizens to provide feedback on the city’s prior use of SCP funds.

The second hearing has yet to be scheduled due to the effects of possible sequestration on the local government.

“Right now the (Department of) Housing and Urban Development is backed up because the Division of Cost Determination is backed up,” explained Hildebrand. “This means we have no direction right now as to the amount of the funds, so we have been told to use last year’s numbers as an estimate until the sequestration ends.”

That means the city will be basing all estimations on the approximately $300,000 that was awarded during the 2012 fiscal year.

“Because we have to wait for the contract to come back, the funds don’t come until late in the summer. Since we have a short construction season, work won’t be done until next year,” said Hildebrand. “So the funds are geared more towards the 2013 to 2014 year.”

The funds must be spent within three years of receiving them, which means the city loses out on nearly a year and must contract the projects to occur in the next two years. “We are able to get an extension from the DCD, but that just means more paperwork,” said Hildebrand.

Of the funding that is received, the city must take out an administrative portion and the remainder is divided. Seventy percent of the remaining funds go to LMI improvements such as Americans with Disabilities Act and street improvements and the remaining 30 percent is locked into paying back the Streetscape I loan for the next several years.

With the 2011 and 2012 funds having gone to ADA ramps within the city, Hildebrand anticipates a street project. “East Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues qualified for low to moderate income status,” he added. Hildebrand also noted that portion of the street scored in the high 60s, percentage-wise, based on a city income survey.

The last work to be done on streets with SCP funds were Oak Street in 2010, Beaty Street in 2009, and Pool Street in 2008.

While the purpose of the meeting was SCP funding, the intersection at Pennsylvania Avenue and Liberty Street crept into the discussion.

“My gut feeling is that we need a traffic light there,” said Zavinski. “Maybe not right now, but later on down the road, definitely.”

So why is there no further movement on the issue?

The answer seems to be centered around the expense and Streetscape Phase II concerns.

“We have to keep in mind the possibility of the hotel and convention center,” said Freenock. “I don’t want us to go and spend all this money on a traffic signal only to turn around and have to spend even more money later on work to redesign the intersection.”

If the hotel and convention center comes to fruition, the city would be looking at another large expense to redesign the intersection to expand the width of the street to include a right-turn-only lane. That would be in addition to having to update the length of the traffic signal arm that extends over the street.

For the time being, the city is looking into hiring a private entity to perform a traffic study that will assess whether there is a true need for a four-way signal.

“I have watched as pedestrians walk straight through the crosswalk with their heads down, texting,” said Zavinski. “If I were them, I’d be more focused on the traffic coming toward me than my phone.”

With representatives from Northwest Savings Bank ruling out the possibility of a second overhead walkway spanning Pennsylvania Avenue, Director of Public Works Mike Holtz speculated that a potential bidder may come in under $100,000 for the light, which is estimated at $150,000.

Other ideas bandied to resolve the problem included one-way streets or a policeman for traffic direction stationed during busy hours.