Homeowner Steven Lucarelli worked on the bathroom of his new Mutual Self-Help Program home in the Valley View subdivision on Wednesday, May 24, as Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah Program Manager Wanda Rebiejo looked on. At full build-out, Lucarelli's home will be one of 28 housing authority homes in the new subdivision. President Donald Trump's proposed budget for the coming fiscal year would eliminate the Mutual Self-Help Program, which funds about two-thirds of the housing authority's annual operating budget. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

It’s a big “if,” but if Congress approves President Donald Trump’s budget priorities for the coming fiscal year, local government entities can brace themselves for steep funding cuts, or the elimination of some federally funded programs altogether.

The president’s “Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” for the federal government’s 2017-2018 fiscal year would do away with a block grant program that funds community development, affordable housing and improvements to local infrastructure. Likewise, it would eliminate a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program that currently funds about two-thirds of the Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah’s annual operating budget.

In addition, the president is proposing to terminate a long-running program that subsidizes passenger airline service to isolated rural communities like Moab, and he’s calling for the elimination of the federal agency that oversees the AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer program.

County funding could also take a hit: Trump’s budget would reduce allocations from the federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program, which compensates counties where the tax-exempt federal government owns large tracts of land. The details of the cuts are not included in the blueprint, but the document says that the reductions are in line with average PILT funding levels over the past 10 years.

Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison said he would like to see representatives from the U.S. House and Senate delve further into the details of the administration’s plans to get rid of entities like the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Program. The U.S. Housing and Urban Development-administered program distributes annual grants to more than 1,200 local government entities and states around the country.

“I hope that Congress can step up to the plate and go through this with a fine-tooth comb, because these are essential services that are provided to the community, and I don’t know how we would alleviate the impacts,” Sakrison said.

Moab Regional Hospital CEO Jennifer Sadoff said the White House’s proposed budget includes $610 billion in Medicaid cuts, as well as $5.8 billion in cuts to the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

The hospital is also anticipating a reduction in Medicaid reimbursements, as well as a reduction in its Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) Program payment, which helps offset the costs of serving a higher number of low-income Medicaid patients.

“The DSH program is a significant portion of MRH’s bottom line,” Sadoff said.

On the upside for the hospital, the president’s budget calls for significant increases in funding for substance abuse treatment and intervention programs.

Nationwide, the proposal would allocate $500 million to expand treatment program access for opioid addiction. Utah currently has the seventh highest opioid overdose rate in the United States, and the overdose rate in southeastern Utah is much higher than it is in other parts of the state.

In 2016, “Alcohol and Substance Abuse” was listed as the top community health concern in the hospital’s Community Health Needs Assessment.

“This funding could significantly impact the services and interventions available for Substance Use Disorder in southeast Utah,” Sadoff said.

Locals see VISTA volunteers as invaluable to Moab

Moab resident Trish Hedin, who successfully wrote grants that brought numerous AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers to Moab, said it’s important that citizens pay attention to the White House’s proposal in the coming months. At this point, she’s focused on the positive benefits that programs or agencies like AmeriCorps bring to Moab and Grand County.

“I think it’s a great program for small communities and rural communities that don’t have a lot of resources,” Hedin said.

When Hedin’s first grant for the Arches Education Center was approved, she wound up with two volunteers. After a year or two, she said, other local organizations who were interested in AmeriCorps VISTA approached her, so she kept adding programs to the grants she wrote.

Over the years, she said, those grants have drawn in volunteers like Gabriel Woytek – Hedin’s first VISTA recruit – and Maddy Fisk, who is now set to take over as Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center’s next executive director.

“You bring people into this community like that who become integral members of our community, and I think that’s invaluable,” Hedin said.

Moab Valley Multicultural Center Executive Director Rhiana Medina suggested that the signs of the AmeriCorps VISTA program’s success are on full display at the nonprofit group’s home on 100 West.

“It’s an important program for the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, and it has created so much capacity,” she said. “The proof is in how much our group has grown.”

Proposed cuts extend to UMTRA, Interior, Essential Air Service

In other potential impacts to local projects, the agency that manages the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project would receive a funding increase under the president’s proposal, from $6.12 billion to $6.5 billion. However, the Moab project itself would face an 8.6 percent cut from fiscal year 2016 funding levels, from $38.6 million to $35.3 million.

The cleanup of the former Atlas Mill site along the banks of the Colorado River just north of Moab is a legacy of Cold War-era demands for uranium during the nuclear arms race with the former Soviet Union, and the dawn of the nuclear energy industry. Crews are currently more than halfway through the process of moving an estimated 16 million tons of uranium mill tailings via rail from the UMTRA site to a long-term disposal cell near Crescent Junction about 30 miles north of Moab.

The project took a financial hit during former President Barack Obama’s final year in office. Although the Trump administration subsequently boosted UMTRA funding for the current fiscal year, to $37.88 million, Grand County UMTRA Liaison Lee Shenton said the project’s contractors still have a lot of work to catch up on.

In other proposed reductions, the U.S. Interior Department, which oversees the National Park Service, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies, faces a 12 percent cut of $1.5 billion under the president’s proposal.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which helps fund passenger airline service to Moab and other rural communities, would disappear entirely.

Grand County Airport Board chair Bill Groff said that similar proposals materialize every couple of years, noting that former Presidents Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also submitted plans to discontinue EAS.

“It’s always on the chopping block,” Groff said.

Those earlier efforts ultimately faltered, and Groff said he is not too concerned about the program’s short-term fate, or the odds that the administration will succeed in eliminating subsidies for commercial airline flights to and from Canyonlands Field Airport.

“I think that eventually, it will be phased out, but in the near future, I don’t think it will be,” he said.

In Congress, he said, there is broad bipartisan support for the Essential Air Service program.

And in the long run, airline industry officials have said they believe that the day will come when local passenger service can succeed as a stand-alone service without federal subsidies. According to Groff, former EAS carrier SkyWest is encouraged by the number of enplanements during the spring, summer and fall months – a number that is expected to increase once the airport’s runway and terminal are expanded to accommodate larger aircraft and more passengers.

“SkyWest thinks that we are in a situation that’s the same as West Yellowstone and Cody, Wyoming,” Groff said.

Funds for local affordable housing at risk

Trump got his start as a builder, and Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah Executive Director Ben Riley said he was cautiously optimistic that the president would work to help the construction industry once he took office.

“But that hasn’t really come to pass,” Riley said.

In fact, the president is proposing to eliminate the USDA’s Rural Development Office’s Mutual Self-Help Program – the program that provides the housing authority with the bulk of its annual funding.

“That would be a huge loss for us, and not only because it’s such a big part of our budget,” Riley said. “It just helps us facilitate other things, like doing the low-income tax credit.”

The housing authority is trying to make the transition to other programs in order to stay ahead of any major changes, Riley said, although affordable housing programs typically need some kind of subsidy or tax credit in order to succeed.

Riley has heard from some people who are hopeful that the president could give affordable housing tax credits a boost, following the same model that former Republican President Ronald Reagan once touted.

“It’s kind of a public-private partnership,” Riley said. “It’s a Reagan-era program.”

Although he hasn’t heard any specifics regarding those credits, Riley said that another essential housing authority program is potentially in jeopardy.

Trump’s proposal would eradicate the USDA’s Section 502 Direct Homeownership Loan Program, and reduce staff levels at the Rural Development and USDA Service Center offices, to boot.

“If families can’t get the 502 loan, we couldn’t afford to do the (Mutual Self-Help) program,” Riley said. “We can’t have one without the other – Mutual Self-Help depends on families getting a 502 loan.”

The entire CDBG Program also faces an uncertain future.

According to the White House, the federal government has spent more than $150 billion on the program since it was established in 1974, and the administration claims that it has “not demonstrated results” during that time.

However, city officials don’t share that belief.

Moab City Council member Kyle Bailey said that CDBG funds have helped Four Corners Community Behavioral Health provide housing for people who suffer from mental illnesses.

“It would really affect people at-risk,” Bailey said. “It’s been an important leverage for housing.”

Sakrison said the program’s positive impacts in the community extend far beyond the help it’s provided for local residents with mental illnesses.

“CDBG covers a whole lot of ground,” he said.

In the past, CDBG funding has gone toward improvements to the Center Street ball fields, upgrades to city sidewalks and work to bring city facilities into compliance with the federally mandated Americans with Disabilities Act. Other CDBG funds have benefited the Meals on Wheels program, and helped lower-income families weatherize their homes, he said.

“If it goes away, it’s going to be a big hit,” Sakrison said. “A ‘huge hit,’ in the vernacular that our president uses. Huge, huge, huge.”

On average, the program distributes about $400,000 annually to the Southeastern Utah Association of Local Government’s member counties – a small sum by many standards, but important nonetheless, Sakrison said.

“It’s not a huge pot of money, but every little bit helps,” he said.

Housing, health care, and volunteer services could be on chopping block

I hope that Congress can step up to the plate and go through this with a fine-tooth comb, because these are essential services that are provided to the community, and I don’t know how we would alleviate the impacts.

For more information about the White House’s budget proposal, go to: www.whitehouse.gov/sites/whitehouse.gov/files/omb/budget/fy2018/2018_blueprint.pdf.