Shrinking cities shouldn’t be neglected for water aid

Findings from a new study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office on the paltry levels of grant awards to shrinking midsized cities for water improvements are at once sobering, explanatory and instructive.

The GAO, the chief auditing and investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, concluded in its study released last week that “none of the six federal programs we reviewed were specifically designed to assist cities with declining populations in funding water and wastewater infrastructure needs.”

That dreary assessment speaks directly to Youngstown, a city that has withstood a 42 percent population loss between 1980 and 2010. Over the same time frame, Youngstown’s aging water infrastructure has continued to crumble to the point where today the city has been ordered to undertake a $146 million makeover to comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

The GAO proclamation on lackluster assistance, however, comes as no great surprise to Mayor John A. McNally. “None of these programs are particularly effective in helping cities like Youngstown with their water and sewer issues,” he said after its release.

The mayor is not mincing words or crying wolf. A chart included in the 87-page GAO study proves his point. It shows, for example, that Youngstown, one of 14 cities and water systems examined, received over the past five fiscal years a puny $5.3 million in total federal funding from the six chief water-grant agencies of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Economic Development Administration and the Federal Homeland Security Administration.

Similar midsized cities received similar low-ball aid over those years: Gary, Ind., $6.7 million; Macon, Ga., $7.5 million; and Birmingham, Ala., $11.7 million. In contrast, St. Louis, a city about five times larger than Youngstown, received 96 times more grant funding – $486.9 million – for water work.


With such minimal assistance from the billions of dollars awarded annually in federal water grants, leaders and residents of Youngstown are left to fend for themselves. As a result, in a city with a poverty rate of 37 percent and an unemployment rate of 19 percent, Youngstown has little choice but to sock it to water users to get the federally mandated improvements completed over the next three decades. That explains the annual 4 percent rate hikes water users face each year through at least 2018.

That outcome clearly has placed a disproportionate hardship on many Youngstown water users. City residents, on average, pay 8 percent of their total income toward water and wastewater services, far above the 4.5 percent that the GAO considers unaffordable. Worse yet, 13 percent of all water customers had their water service shut off in Youngstown last year for lack or payment, the GAO reported.

To avert worsening such dire consequences, structural change in grant programs and creative cost-cutting brainstorming by city leaders may well be in order.

Officials in the EPA, EDA and HUD, for example, could team up with leaders of midsize cities to study ways in which existing grant programs could better respond to their needs and assist them. That could entail tweaking any regulations that work against awards to cities such as Youngstown.

For their part, city leaders could network and brainstorm solutions. Some have urged cities to use more of their annual Community Development Block Grant funding for water infrastructure. In fiscal year 2015, for example, the GAO reported only 1.9 percent or $438 million of that funding was used for water-infrastructure projects.

Municipal leaders also could act independently by touching base with leaders of similar-sized cities in similar predicaments. Again, the GAO study provides instruction. That study points out that the shrinking cities of Charleston, W. Va., and Niagara Falls, N.Y. – both with about 20 percent fewer people than Youngstown – managed to receive grant funding many times higher than Youngstown’s over the past five years. Perhaps leaders there could provide helpful insight on their larger awards.

Of course, the solutions won’t be easy or quick. But the GAO study succeeds in illuminating seeming disparities in grant-award distribution. It also suggests avenues for change. Leaders in Youngstown and elsewhere should use the study as a launching pad for deeper inquiry and productive action.