My View: Transparency needed in grant funding with Frank Putzu

My View: Transparency needed in grant funding with Frank Putzu
Frank Putzu

Local governments like the City of Alexandria use a complex pipeline of intergovernmental grants and loans to deliver necessary public services and critical investment programs for citizens. Yet tracking the flow of these funds is not easy. There are growing calls across the city for grant applications to be subject to public scrutiny long before being presented to City Council, and docketed for discussion at a public hearing.

Here’s why. The City of Alexandria routinely applies for – and receives – federal and state grant funding for unpopular projects, often in the millions of dollars. Grant applications prepared by City Manager Mark Jinks and staff are normally approved at legislative meetings – not public hearings.

By the time any policy issue finally comes before council, it is way too late to do anything about the funding that has been dedicated to it.

In Alexandria, we must ensure that decisions important to the public are not decided behind closed doors, before public disclosure or candid council discussions. Grant funding often covers just part of the cost for a project, leaving taxpayers to foot the rest of the bill.

The city has already received grant funding to reconfigure the intersection of King Street, and Callahan and Russell roads to accommodate bike lanes, despite tense public meetings and public opposition to the project. Here are other examples of this process and the importance of timely input:

Eisenhower Avenue: The city received $3.6 million in VDOT grants to change a traffic circle on Eisenhower Avenue and Mill Road to a “T” intersection in part to accommodate bicyclists. Bids for the work came in $2.2 million higher than expected. In January 2020, residents testified to the safety and traffic benefits of the circle.

Department of Transportation and Environmental Services Director Yon Lambert testified that if council was willing to refund the grant funding, the traffic circle could be preserved. The city chose to pay the additional $2.2 million to save the $3.6 million grant that was clearly a pet project but had scant support.

Duke Street: The city has received a $75 million grant to restructure Duke Street to remove traffic lanes and substitute bus lanes and bicycle facilities for cars, adding new congestion headaches to an already overloaded road.

The city applied for the grant in September 2019 and received approval in July 2020. Yet community engagement is scheduled for 2021-2022, largely ensuring that the public would have little to no say on whether yet another major road diet with lost traffic capacity was sound. Notably, the city wrote in its application that “potential risks may include public opposition during the public outreach period which may slow the project.”

Upper King: The city applied for a $40 million grant to restructure King Street between Quaker Lane and Menokin Drive to impose another road diet to create “wider sidewalks, bus facilities, and bicycle infrastructure.” A stated purpose is to “enhance both the pedestrian and bicycle experience …”

Months after submitting the application, T&ES declined to offer information to affected residents since they do not have the grant money yet. Following the same pattern, the city plans Transparency needed in grant funding to engage the public on another flawed road diet only after receiving a $40 million grant, by which time it is a done deal, no matter what the public or council thinks.

Taylor Run and Strawberry Run: The city plans to cut down more than 250 trees as part of a questionable and risky Taylor Run Stream Restoration Plan. The city applied for a $2.25 million state stormwater local assistance fund grant in September 2018, holding its first public meeting three months after the application.

Jinks informed council in 2020 that the matching $2.25 million cost to the city would come from the Stormwater Utility Fund, which had been established to alleviate flooding problems due to inadequate infrastructure. A similar effort for Strawberry Run also kicked off with the first public meeting three months after the SLAF grant application was submitted.

Seminary Road: The sidewalk effort there shows the importance of timely disclosure. The city submitted a grant application to complete a quarter mile of sidewalk for $1.4 million – $800,000 from the Virginia Department of Transportation – in Oct. 2019, shortly after the infamous 4-3 road diet vote. VDOT wisely denied the application as an inappropriate use of grant funding, demonstrating the importance of public input.

These examples give a sense of how serious this issue is, and why full public disclosure, followed by a docket item at a public hearing, are necessary before the city submits a grant.

The writer is Representative of Area 8 of the Seminary Hill Association