Port Huron keeps blight money despite federal inquiry

Federal funding that Port Huron received to help combat blighted neighborhoods has come under question by a federal inspector general. (Times Herald)

Federal funding that Port Huron received to help combat blighted neighborhoods has come under question by a federal inspector general. (Times Herald)

By Tony Wittkowski | City Reporter | The Times Herald

Port Huron will keep a million-dollar grant to battle blight even as a federal inspector general launches an inquiry into the program that is providing the money.

Special Inspector General Christy Romero is taking a long look at the U.S. Treasury Department’s role in blight-eradication efforts under the $7.6 billion Hardest Hit Fund.

Port Huron has been promised $1 million from that fund this year.

Romero’s office — the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program — is reviewing the $372 million committed so far, which includes $175 million earmarked for Michigan.

The program is being reviewed the same way the inspector general would examine other funds, said Maya Newman, a spokeswoman for the Hardest Hit Fund and the Treasury Department. The fund’s goal is to prevent foreclosures by sharing federal dollars with states, which then decide what programs to fund.

Mary Townley, director of home ownership for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, said the review will not affect the money pledged to Port Huron.

“There is no funding that will be pulled. That is not even on the table,” Townley said. “The Port Huron allocation was granted from the second round of Hardest Hit Funds. The city of Port Huron put together a strategic plan on how they would use these funds and in what areas of the city.”

Townley said Romero’s office provides oversight authority for the Treasury Department and is making sure federal funds are spent appropriately and with full accounting.

“This is their review of blight re-purposing of the Hardest Hit Funds,” she said. “It wasn’t a full audit. It was a review of each state’s parameters. In their review they are calling for extra oversight and the placement of goals.”

Port Huron applied for the first round of Hardest Hit Funds two years ago and was denied.

It tried again in November, resubmitting its application for the second round of grants. Port Huron was one of 12 cities chosen for help from the state housing authority, which looked at a variety of factors including vacancy rates.

As part of the process, Port Huron was asked to identify three neighborhoods with dangerous structures or abandoned homes to be demolished.

The grant requires 25 percent of the funding to be spent in six months, while 70 percent must be spent within a year.

Kim Harmer, director of Planning and Community Development for Port Huron, said the city will address blighted areas based on “current need.”

“As properties become what we deem suitable for demolition, we can go in and tackle that project,” she said. “There’s no final list. We don’t know how things are going to change over the course of a year-and-a-half.”

Harmer said city representatives will attend a MHSDA training seminar on Feb. 9. The city then will be told when it can start spending the money.

“It depends on what we hear at the training seminar,” Harmer said. “We don’t know when the buildings can be taken down until then.”

Townley said once the city goes through its training, it will begin to remove blighted structures.

“We only provide funds back to the city upon completion of the demolition for a specific structure,” Townley said. “They bring it all down and provide us proof of that demolition, and then we send funds back to them to cover the costs. There is no upfront money that’s given.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at (810) 989-6270 or twittkowsk@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 28, 2015)

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