President Donald J. Trump administration’s appetite for unprecedented domestic budget cuts has Waco-area governments and nonprofit agencies bracing for what could be millions of dollars in lost revenue.
The “budget blueprint” the White House rolled out in March would eliminate entire agencies and major grant programs that Greater Waco has received for decades. Among the hardest hit would be programs for low-income housing, homeownership efforts, assistance for seniors and low-income families, school-teacher training and public radio.
But much of the federal money that flows through this region is largely invisible, filtered through dozens of small grants and agencies. The proposed $54 billion domestic budget cut would crimp that hose, with effects on dozens of community efforts not usually thought of as federal: museum exhibits, early childhood programs at Talitha Koum or infrastructure improvements in rural areas.
They include the complete elimination of the 51-year-old Community Development Block Grant program to municipalities. The city of Waco gets about $1.3 million a year in CDBG funds, which go to code enforcement, parks, sidewalks and emergency housing, as well as subsidies to about a dozen local agencies, such as homeless shelters run by Mission Waco and Compassion Ministries.
Small towns in McLennan County and five nearby rural counties have received $11 million in CDBG funds in the past four years, according to the Heart of Texas Council of Governments. Most of that money goes to water and sewer improvements.
“It hurts rural America, and it hurts small towns,” HOTCOG executive director Russell Devorsky said. “This is money that’s needed. It’s not icing on the cake. This is the basic stuff that needs to be done in cities. . . . These towns are already struggling with their tax base. It’s nothing but a federal tax shift onto local folks. Show me who’s going to live without sewer and water. . . . If you can’t flush your toilet, there’s going to be a lot of problems.”
Community leaders are quick to point out that Trump’s so-called “skinny budget” is likely a far cry from what will eventually emerge from Congress, and its details are skimpy. Still, the Trump plan — which would shift some $54 million from domestic programs to military and homeland security — reflects the new administration’s priorities and is the opening salvo in what could be a bruising budget fight.
“Although the proposed Trump budget will not pass as written, we will probably see some movement in the general direction of increasing defense-related spending (including border control) and decreasing non-defense spending,” Waco-based economist Ray Perryman said in an email for this story.
Perryman said Trump’s plan could help Waco businesses with ties to military or border security contractors, and pledges to increase Veterans Affairs spending could help Waco’s VA hospital.
“However, the overall push toward making states and local areas provide social services rather than the federal government (without associated funding help) will strain budgets across the nation, including Waco,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, said Trump’s budget is a “step in the right direction” in relieving a government under “fiscal stress.”
“Properly prioritized funding is crucial, and I believe that funding some community programs should be re-examined,” he said in a statement for this story. “For too long, federal programs have been measured solely on how much the government spends, not on outcomes or results.”
However, he said, “there are some areas where I disagree and where his ideas do not reflect the priorities of the 17th Congressional District.” For example, while the Trump budget calls for deep cuts in scientific research, Flores said federally funded research can be “seed corn” for new economic growth.
Jessica Attas, public policy director for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said it’s likely many government programs that serve this area could be streamlined to be more cost-effective. But she said wiping out programs overnight could leave many community needs unmet.
“Often folks look to businesses and churches and say, ‘Let the private sector step in and lead. Let the churches step up to meet those needs,’ ” she said. “But look around in Waco. Our private sector is already doing so much. Our churches are already engaged. … To lose all those programs and services (government-funded agencies) provide would be a great detriment to the good work we’ve done as a community to make Waco a desirable place to live.”
What follows is a sampling of potential funding losses under the Trump budget, but not a comprehensive list. The budget blueprint does not specify where all of its cuts would be. For example, the Department of Agriculture budget would be slashed by 21 percent, or 4.7 billion, but it’s unclear whether big programs such as school lunches would be affected.
Much federal funding local entities receive is from one-time grants, which by nature are unpredictable. However, the Tribune-Herald’s survey found at least $10 million in regular federal funding that would likely be cut in this area.
A 14 percent cut to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could have significant effects on public housing and Section 8 housing voucher programs run by the Waco Housing Authority, said Milet Hopping, the agency’s executive director. Hopping estimated that the agency could lose about $2.6 million of the $20 million it normally gets, possibly resulting in fewer low-income housing vouchers and a depletion of capital funds for Waco’s aging public housing.
She said the public housing has been modernized over the years, but deep cuts could ultimately make it infeasible to continue to maintain.
“Right now, we’ve got reserves in public housing to get us through some time period,” she said. “I think about five years (under the proposed cuts) would be a significant enough hit for us to say we can’t do this anymore. I think the consequences to that are significant in the respect that we already have an affordable housing crisis in Waco. We have a lot of housing growth, but not necessarily for that population.”
Section 8, a Reagan-era voucher program that helps pay for private housing for about 6,000 people in the Waco area, is also poised for deep cuts. Hopping estimated 800 of those low-income residents could be affected by the cuts.
Meanwhile, the elimination of block grants to the city of Waco would have a significant impact on housing. The CDBG program provides about $361,605 a year for city code enforcement officers, plus occasional grants to local housing nonprofit groups. Those nonprofit groups — Waco Habitat for Humanity, Neighborworks and Waco Community Development Corp. — would be affected even more directly by the elimination of the city’s annual HOME grant of about $500,000. The HOME program also has funded low-interest loans to help families buy their first home.
Neighborworks would receive an even bigger hit from the elimination of the federal Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp., which typically provides about two-thirds of the agency’s budget. The amount was about $414,250 last year and $219,000 this year.
Executive director Roy Nash said he intends for Neighborworks to survive and continue to helping homebuyers of modest income, regardless of future cuts.
“Our marching orders that we’ve given staff are that we’re going to come up with a strategic plan in lieu of that funding,” he said.
The Trump plan zeroes out what is now $715 million in funding for the Community Services Block Grants, an anti-poverty grant program administered in the Waco region by the Economic Opportunities Advancement Corp., or EOAC. The local grant of about $456,000 helps pay for short-term utility and rental assistance and other immediate needs.
“The thing about it is that it hurts the people who are trying to get ahead,” executive director John Key said. “All we do is give them a step up. Our mission is to help people so they can become self-sufficient.”
EOAC also would lose about $500,000 under the federal program to help low-income people weatherize their homes.
The elimination of the Senior Community Service Employment program would force the closure of Experience Works, a job training program based in Waco. President and CEO Sally A. Boofer said the program currently has 35 people over age 55 enrolled locally in job training programs.
Meanwhile, the loss of CDBG funding to the city could affect numerous nonprofit groups, including Mission Waco, Talitha Koum early childhood program, Salvation Army, AVANCE Waco, the Family Abuse Center and Project Promise, which offers gifted and talented children a summer learning experience at Baylor University.
The Trump plan’s proposed $9 billion cut to the Department of Education eliminates $2.4 billion in teacher training and a $1.2 billion program for after-school and summer programs.
Waco Independent School District would lose $983,253 in funds that go to teacher training and class-size reductions, while Midway ISD would lose $90,000.
“Immediate impacts would be felt across the district by any kind of professional development opportunities we provide,” said Sheila Whitehead, Waco ISD’s coordinator of compensatory education services. “Additionally, we hire four instructional coaches who go out and work with teachers on a daily basis districtwide in reading in math from those funds.”
Waco ISD also could lose $250,000 a year in grant funds under the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, which provides after-school programs. However, that program is currently funded for two more years.
“We are optimistic, but in a worst-case scenario we would figure out if and how we could continue the program and how to best serve our students,” WISD spokesman Bruce Gietzen said.
The Trump budget also would eliminate college financial aid from the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity grant, but officials at local colleges did not have estimates of how that would affect students.
Arts and culture
Waco’s NPR station, KWBU, would lose $110,000 a year — about 15 percent of its budget — if the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were eliminated, said Joe Riley, president and CEO of Brazos Valley Public Broadcasting Foundation.
“We have the (CPB’s) minimum staffing requirements, and in programming we’re about as lean as we can be,” Riley said. “Any more cuts and you start affecting how you’re providing for the (listening) members. … We’re not panicking at this point. It’s something we hear every year, but now more seriously than I’ve heard in the past.”
The elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities would affect local museums and arts agencies. Among those that have benefited from federal arts and humanities funding are Waco Cultural Arts Fest, Mayborn Museum, Historic Waco Foundation, Waco Symphony and the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum.
Direct NEA grants provided $25,000 toward Patrick Dougherty’s branch-and-sapling sculpture “River Vessels,” built in Cameron Park in 2010 and $15,000 toward the $1.4 million Doris Miller memorial planned for Bledsoe-Miller Park.
The Trump plan would eliminate the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program under the Department of Justice. The $210 million program reimburses entities for the cost of jailing undocumented immigrants.
For the fiscal year 2016 budget, McLennan County received $53,297 under the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program. The county received $56,697 the year prior, $68,173 in fiscal year 2014 and $80,805 in fiscal year 2013.
The budget plan would cut the U.S. Department of Transportation by $2.4 billion, or 13 percent. It would eliminate TIGER and New Starts funds for new discretionary transportation projects, along with funding for long-distance AMTRAK lines such as the Texas Eagle that runs through McGregor.
Waco Transit gets most of its government funding from the feds, but general manager John Hendrickson said he doesn’t foresee major operational cuts in the near future. However, he said a “bus rapid transit” plan to realign the transit system along an express “backbone” line to reduce travel times could become more difficult with the cuts. The project could cost up to $80 million but is expected to bring in more ridership and fares to offset operating costs.
The elimination of the $498 million rural water and wastewater program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture could limit options for some local small towns. But it probably won’t affect the city of Mart’s recent $17 million package of grants and loans to overhaul waterlines and streets, said Henry Witt III, mayor of the McLennan County town of 2,500 people. Witt expects the work to begin within a year.
The budget plan also would eliminate the Economic Development Administration, which recently awarded a $1.9 million grant to improve a road in Bellmead and Waco that benefits the new Sherwin-Williams plant. Local officials said they think that grant is secure.
Meanwhile, the CDBG program has provided 41 grants worth $11 million during the past four years to small communities in McLennan, Bosque, Hill, Limestone, Falls and Freestone counties, mostly for infrastructure.
Regardless of what the final budget numbers are, the specter of deep cuts should alert local nonprofit groups and social service agencies to the need for contingency planning, said Ashley Allison, executive director of the Waco Foundation. The foundation, which invested $3.75 million in the community last year, is not directly affected by the proposed cuts.
“While we will continue to provide grants and services to the nonprofits our community depends on, Waco Foundation, and philanthropy as a whole, is not equipped to cover the gaps caused by deep funding cuts,” Allison said. “While we hope these drastic cuts will not go into effect, it’s likely that nonprofits will have to face reduced funding at some point. We continue to encourage local nonprofits to set aside funds today as an endowment to provide for the future. As funding cuts loom and the competition for charitable dollars increases, we believe most nonprofits will be forced to eventually find replacement funding.”