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Mayor seeks Tarpon Springs' piece of pie

Mayor Beverley Billiris braved blustery weather and Washington politics last week to fight for Tarpon Springs' share of federal money. The trip, she said, was grueling but productive.

Despite sub-freezing temperatures and an inadvertently booked out-of-the way hotel, Billiris said she navigated mostly on foot.

"What I do for God and my country," she joked.

The Florida League of Cities has been arranging the pilgrimage north for the past five years, but this trip was especially fruitful, said John Thomas, the league's director of legislative and public affairs.

"This year our timing was good," he said. "It was so soon after the president released his budget (proposal for fiscal 2007). . . . It makes all the difference."

The Florida delegates began meeting Feb. 7 with members of Congress for support on a range of issues, including eminent domain, water infrastructure, telecommunication franchise fees. But the priority was to sway legislators to reject one proposed budget cut.

"The Community Development Block Grant dollars was the biggest focus," Billiris said.

In the current fiscal year, the block grant funding was reduced about 10 percent, to $4.7-billion, from the previous year. President Bush's proposal would reduce it about $1-billion from the current amount.

"What we want them to do is hold the line . . . to maintain what we already have," Billiris said.

Tarpon Springs has recently received about $600,000 from the program. The money has helped finance affordable housing initiatives and streetscape improvements on Safford Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive, the mayor said.

"Those are all projects that would have to wait - or wouldn't happen at all," if the proposed cut is enacted, she said. "That's how we keep taxes down and (afford) redevelopment."

Some critics of the block grant program, including members of the Bush administration, believe that the grant process should be revamped, in order to more precisely target the neediest communities.

Currently, the money is funneled to cities based on multiple factors, including population and income levels. A new system would likely put greater weight on poverty rates.

The administration has not released details about a new funding formula. But Bruce Bussey, planning manager for the Pinellas County Community Development Department, said it could mean reductions for the county.

"We could lose funding altogether," he said.

Bussey said the current fiscal year's CDBG allocation was slightly less than $3.5-million for the county. None of that money was allocated for the three largest cities - St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Largo - which are all funded separately.

For the past decade, the county's slice of the block-grant pie has remained relatively constant until this year's cut, Bussey said. He added that the strength of the program is the flexibility it permits, accommodating the different needs of different municipalities.

Recent Pinellas projects using CDBG funds are the development of Joe's Creek Park in Lealman, the YMCA community activity program in a neighborhood along a western section of Ulmerton Road, and the streetscape improvements in Tarpon Springs.

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