Trump budget threatens Southern Utah county associations of governments

Composite using images by svengine and michaklootwijk / iStock / Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — On March 16, President Trump released his proposed budget blueprint. In the included “President’s Message” to Congress, Trump said, “We have made tough choices that have been put off for too long.” If enacted, one of these tough choices could be the elimination of funding to county government associations that help facilitate programs such as job training, aging services, maintaining public lands and small business financing, among others.

The Five County Association of Governments is one of these associations. Formally established in 1972, the Five County AOG serves 37 Southern Utah municipalities, five countywide school districts and the jurisdictions of Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane and Washington counties.

In this file photo, an Enterprise City Fire Department engine rolls through a parade. A new pumper truck for the department is one example of a Five County Association of Governments Community Development Block Grant project, photo date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Enterprise City, St. George News

It is governed by a committee comprising a commissioner, mayor and school board member from each county, as well as ex-officio representation from Southern Utah University and Dixie State University.

In addition to the aforementioned programs, the Five County AOG provides assistance in decision making and implementation of programs related to community and economic development, transportation planning and human services planning.

In 2016, community projects from the association totaled over $776,000 in awarded funding and included improvements to firefighting operations in LaVerkin City, Enterprise City and Washington County Northwestern Special Service District.

Read more: Enterprise to debut new fire station in ribbon-cutting ceremony

The Five County AOG is one of seven such Utah county government associations that could see their funding drastically cut if the president’s budget is approved.

“I’d definitely say at least three-quarters of our agency would be affected by it,” Bryan Thiriot, executive director of the association, said.

“We’re looking to see how Congress responds to Trump’s budget.”

According to the Five County AOG website, the association “operates on funding allocated from numerous federal and state contracts.” Part of this funding comes from the Community Development Block Grant – or CDBG – program, one of the longest running programs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Trump’s budget proposes “one of the largest increases in defense spending without increasing the debt.” In order to do this, it calls for cuts in discretionary spending almost across the board, including to the CDBG program.

In Trump’s message to Congress, he said: “A budget that puts America first must make the safety of our people its number one priority – because without safety, there can be no prosperity.”

This focus represents a problem for Utah’s AOGs.

Five County (AOG) is not a national defense agency,” Thiriot said.

Programs “zeroed out” by the proposed budget, Thiriot said, include the weatherization program, HEAT assistance program, rural foster grandparent program, the Social Service Block Grant program and the Community Service Block Grant program.

“That’s our community action program to help individuals move to more self-sufficiency,” he said.

Russ Cowley, executive director for the Six County Association of Governments, told St. George News eliminating these programs would have a significant impact on the communities they serve. The Six County AOG was founded in 1969 and serves residents of Juab, Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier and Wayne counties.

“We’re trying to do our part,” Cowley said. “That’s our main mission, to try to help people become self-sufficient and to learn the lifestyle skills that they need to get on with their lives and to better their lives and their children’s lives.”

The Six County area is approximately 40 percent below the national average in median family income, Cowley said, and about 20 percent below the state average.

It’s very difficult for people to eke out a living in these rural areas,” Cowley said, “but we choose to live here because of less congestion. There are amenities in rural areas that I think everyone likes, but you give up some of those opportunities for jobs. … We have a higher population that are just barely making it, so they end up in some situations where their housing and everything else isn’t as good as it should be.”

The CDBG funding helps the Six County AOG assist families in bettering their living situation, Cowley said, such as through the weatherization program, which identifies and remedies home energy efficiency problems, or the furnace replacement program.

“It’s very difficult to see some of those programs considered for cutting,” he said, “because if you don’t take care of those situations, the problems become worse and worse until your house becomes so dilapidated you can’t fix them. It’s kind of a way of keeping people in their homes.”

Cowley said he recognizes that there have been abuses of these programs, especially seeing as any community over a certain population threshold is entitled to the block grants, which are typically subject to less federal oversight but are rather used at the discretion of state and local governments.

“You can find a lot of scathing reports about some of the funding and how they are maybe misused,” Cowley said. “Sometimes when you start looking at the projects larger communities use their CDBG funds for, they’re really not what was intended to be used by CDBG. … When you get down to those rural counties like us, those little pots of money become mainstays in a lot of the programs that we do.”

The Six County AOG doesn’t only help individuals but also local businesses. For example, Cowley said, many businesses are finding that they need to come into compliance with standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“How does a community go and actually meet that criteria?” he said “They can go to programs like CDGB and actually get funding to put in handicap ramps perhaps or put in restrooms that are ADA accessible.”

Besides improvements, some businesses may not have been able to even open their doors without the help of the association. Cowley cited the Revolving Loan Fund program, which is administered through the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a bureau within the U.S. Department of Commerce, also on the chopping block.

Cowley mentioned a business in the Six County AOG’s jurisdiction that was underfunded when they got up and running. He said:

We got a letter from the bank that basically told us they were out seeking help because their policies would not allow them to put any more money into this business. … We went in and sat down with the owner and put some requirements that he attend a business class and a couple things, and we ended up giving him $10,000 to keep the cash flow working in their business. That was 10 years ago. That business is still up and running and very viable. I look at it and I think, ‘The bank would’ve shut that business down.’

When looked at as a sum-total, Cowley said, all of these programs have a chain reaction effect on the communities.

“One of the commissioners came up to me one day,” Cowley said, “and he says, ‘I really don’t know what we as communities would do if we didn’t have you guys in place. … It’s so nice to have a source that when we have people who come up to us and say “We have this issue and this issue,” we can send them to you … and you can help them or at least give some kind of help to them. If those programs go away, our communities would not be able to take care of those kinds of individuals.’”

For Thiriot, it is these kinds of stories that Utah’s congressional delegates need to hear.

“I’m not in a position to lobby one way or another,” Thiriot said. “I’m not going to do that, but if the public feels like through education that these programs have been making a difference and they’d like to continue seeing them … it’s (Congress’) prerogative to come up with a federal budget for fiscal year 2018.”

Cowley said he would agree with and that they understand the need for budget cuts.

“We understand that whole-heartedly,” he said. “Every organization and agency, there are things you could take a lot of the fat out and save money. I don’t think any of us are opposed to any of those things. Our message is, if you’re going to cut the whole program out, what do you do with the people we are serving? It falls back onto the local governments, and the local governments really in our area don’t have the resources to take care of a lot of the needs we’re servicing.”

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Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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  • Sapphire March 29, 2017 at 11:39 am

    Why doesn’t the state of Utah take care of its own needs instead of mooching off the federal government? Technically that would just change the tax burden to state and local taxes instead of federal, but all we hear about is states rights until it comes to money, then Utah’s hand is out just like all the other states. How about the state and county accepting responsibility for its own needs and programs?

    • Brian March 29, 2017 at 12:33 pm

      Great, so you approve of eliminating the department of education so we can manage our own money and curriculum within the state? And Utah controlling more of the land within its boundaries so our schools can get revenue from those lands? (Utah and North Dakota became states at nearly the same time, and their Enabling Acts are almost identical, but they have only 3% federal lands and we have over 65% federal lands; not surprisingly their education is very well funded, directly from those lands, and ours isn’t).

      • desertgirl March 29, 2017 at 3:49 pm

        The country would have been better off without Dept. of Education; another failure of big government enacted by the Democratic Party. Test scores have gone done (we have fallen behind much of the civilized world) and teachers are babysitters and liberal preachers at a exacting financial cost. The state of Utah would do us all a favor by teaching responsibility re birth control, thereby reducing education and welfare costs. Save a lot of monies. All states need to assume more responsibility not less. Of course that would require nanny government lovers to get over their sense of entitlement from others.

      • Chris March 29, 2017 at 6:57 pm

        Utah’s inability to do better in per pupil spending on education has nothing do with federal land and everything to do with the large size of families here. North Dakota is nearly all arable land while very little of Utah is, hence the difference in federal ownership. Much of Utah is wasteland, economically speaking, and as such, has little market value. It was all for sale at statehood, but no one wanted much of it, and that is still the case. If you think the schools would be better funded if the federal land was handed to the state, you are very ill informed.

  • cedarcitynana March 29, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    Every day we all have to make tough choices of how we spend our money. We fight the urge to buy something we want instead of what we need. In the end, we all need to live within our means so we can balance ye old check register. The government quit doing that long ago. Thanks to many hard working citizens that have to keep dolling out more and more for taxes, the government continues its irresponsible spending. It’s time the tough choices are made and budgets are cut from the top to the bottom. Back in the day, families were forced to move to wherever they had to in order to gain employment. To read this article and hear how rough people’s lives are because they choose to live in a rural area where resources are tight and jobs are few, please! Do what you need to do to take care of you and yours and quit expecting the government to take care of you. The bottom line is that us hard working folks are who is footing your bills.

  • ffwife March 29, 2017 at 8:56 pm

    The USA is nearly 20 TRILLION in debt – time to cut stuff – the free ride has lost it’s wheels – HELLO!

    • mctrialsguy August 24, 2017 at 3:36 pm

      Perfect, thank you. Short but to the truth!!

  • utahdiablo March 29, 2017 at 9:52 pm

    All I know is my Washington County school taxes get raised 10 – 20% each year, yet my income doesn’t go up at all…..but too bad the FLDS stole $12 Million in welfare fraud from 2011 – 2016 ( and then only got a slap on the wrist and a $100 fine each? )….that taxpayer money could have helped the truly needy

  • observant one March 30, 2017 at 9:21 am

    How much overhead and administration was spent to deliver that 776,000?

  • McNut April 5, 2017 at 11:37 am

    It amazes me to see so many negative comments about these wonderful programs that actually take back federal tax dollars and give it back to the people in the community. (Do you think you’ll get that tax money back if they cut the programs???) You should really educate yourself on these programs and what they really do for the people living right next door to you.
    These programs are NOT welfare but, safety net programs to help people like your grandparents (cedarcitynana) that are trying to live off $700.00 a month in social security or the handicapped middle aged person that can only find part time work to just stay self-sufficient. These programs can even help you when the something unforeseen happens to you and you become unemployed.
    I work hard and pay my bills, never live outside my means and when I had to have an emergency surgery which left me with a $5000.00 out of pocket expense after my insurance paid the local HEAT program was there to ease my current financial burden. I had to pay that hospital bill in full with savings I had accumulated over many years, and that helped me qualify for the heat program and I got over $500.00 of federal tax money credited to my utility companies. This money was available to those who qualify and came from taxpayers like you AND ME.
    This is right where I want some of my tax dollar spent in my community – giving back to the people that paid for it anyway! But it seems like most of you would rather that money pay for our President’s next golf game.

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