Grant highlights municipal government efficiency

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, President Obama signed the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act, 2013, into law, allowing for the disbursal of $16 billion dollars in block grants to communities ravaged by the hurricane. In May 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved the distribution plan for the $1.773 billion that had been allocated to New York City. The grant was entitled the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Action Plan (CDBG-DR).

New York City’s CDBG-DR Action Plan, which details the particulars of various funding projects across the city, epitomizes the swiftness with which local government can translate proposals into projects and highlights the very real interactions citizens can have with their government over the Internet.

Take, for instance, the original CDBG-DR Action Plan approved by HUD in May. In accordance with the Citizen Participation Plan –– a requirement for receiving such a grant –– New York City maintains a set of webpages devoted entirely to the Action Plan for the purposes of educating citizens about the grant. But the webpages are much more than an educational portal.

From March 22 to April 4, 2013, the grant was subjected to a comment period, during which citizens reviewed the distribution plan and submitted remarks. After the comment period, the City published a document on the grant’s website detailing answers to commenters, which are required to be incorporated into the final version of the CDBG-DR Action Plan.

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In some instances, similar messages were grouped together and one response was issued, but on several occasions individual responses were also featured.

One commenter, for instance, suggested the City government merge the CDBG-DR Action Plan with the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, another group of funds devoted to the development and implementation of hazard mitigation measures across New York State. In a two-paragraph response, the City explained it was “evaluat[ing] the possibility.”

Over 90 commenters asked about eligibility requirements, and another 20 inquired about funding priorities with respect to middle- and low- income families. These commenters were pooled together and a response of over 750 words explained the “Eligibility Threshold” and addressed concerns related to funding prioritization, rental properties, and grant amounts.

The same process of review, comment, and response is underway for Amendment 1 to the CDBG-DR Action Plan, which clarifies a reallocation and identifies projects that will receive funding from the $294 million that was allocated to resiliency measures ­­–– programs aimed at protecting the City from future storm damage. Why incorporate the resiliency measures a few weeks after in an amendment? Here’s why.

On June 11, 2013, Mayor Bloomberg presented a 438-page plan entitled “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” that assessed future flooding risks, outlined protective strategies, and made infrastructural recommendations, all with the intent of protecting New York City from the wrath of future storms. The report also includes an appendix that enumerates actionable initiatives, among which are a host of resiliency measures.

The City explains in Amendment 1 that it recognizes the significance of the proposals of the Mayor’s report. It would therefore take care to incorporate many of the resiliency initiatives found in the report’s appendix. Some of the incorporated initiatives include installing armor stone revetments along shorelines; repairing and installing new bulkheads in low-lying City areas; and launching a global design competition for integrated floodwall systems.

The significance of the CDGB-DR Action Plan and Amendment 1 is threefold. First, it allowed New York City residents, many of whom would be materially affected by the grant’s distribution, to engage with the plan on both substantive and technical levels. Second, it integrated the recommendations of a major City government report into its plan. And third, it implicitly validated the Internet as medium for civic engagement.

That is not to say this process can’t be improved. For its part, the City could do a better job of advertising the grant and the comment period -- social media presents a potential answer.

But the most notable aspect of the CDBG-DR Action Plan and Amendment 1 is that the entire process is taking place in a matter of months, not years ­­­­— an example of efficiency in municipal government that contrasts sharply with the workings of the federal government. The City’s evaluation process presented citizens with an opportunity to participate, and it readily incorporated the suggestions of a major mayoral report into its fold. The scale and scope are undoubtedly larger for the federal government, but Washington would do well to follow New York City’s example.

Piedrahita is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in history and is editor-in-chief of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal.