Editorial: Critical federal funding faces chopping block

It’s become a yearly late autumn tradition that leaders from social service agencies across the North Fork attend Town Board meetings to plead for money, specifically through federal Community Development Block Grants. The organizations that serve the neediest and poorest of our neighbors rely on those grants for critical funding.

But it’s a scene we may not see again, as there may be no money left to divide.

• Related story: Local charities could lose federal funds under Trump’s budget

The block grant program, which is facing possible elimination under the proposed 2018 federal budget, dates back to 1974 and is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The federal money is distributed to towns for local improvement efforts and anti-poverty programs after trickling down from the state and county. While funding has decreased in recent years, Riverhead Town was still allocated about $135,000 for 2017, which it will receive in April.

When that total is divided among the several groups that apply for shares of it, the amounts may not seem significant. But to organizations like Maureen’s Haven, a nonprofit that serves the homeless on both the North and South forks, that money represents its livelihood.

In an interview this week, Maureen’s Haven executive director Maryann Gensler said losing that funding may not quite force the organization to close, but it wouldn’t be far off.

It would be misguided for these cuts to become reality. The 2018 federal budget “blueprint” submitted by President Donald Trump slams the program for lackluster results and its elimination is just one piece of a 12 percent overall cut in funding to HUD.

“The program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results,” the president’s budget blueprint states.

Congressman Lee Zeldin’s communications director, Jennifer DiSiena, cautioned that the request in the budget is merely that: a request. Funding for government agencies is initiated by Congress through the appropriations process, she noted.

That’s not exactly comforting to the people who work tirelessly to make our community a better place through these organizations, many of which survive on shoestring budgets and constant fundraising.

These block grants have been a vital source of funding for many worthy charities — and should remain that way.

Photo: Maureen’s Haven volunteer Jenny Fiore of East Quogue sorts through donated items Wednesday morning at the organization’s Riverhead offices. (Credit: Krysten Massa)