Let’s start with one basic premise: a meaningful difference exists between what is right and what is allowed. The United States government runs a massive array of safety net programs to serve the needs of the poor, the elderly, and the disabled. There is never enough public money available to adequately meet these needs. Fraud and the diversion of funds further deplete available public funding. The fraud is illegal. The diversion is inexcusable but often legal. Clever people in our society have a way of making that happen.

In Minnesota, Rob Undersander, a millionaire, discovered that a loophole in the Food Stamps program made him eligible. Mr. Undersander did what was right rather than what was allowed. He exposed the loophole. He didn’t rationalize that if he didn’t take the benefits someone else would or that he should “get his share.”

President Lyndon Johnson established the cabinet level Housing and Urban Development Agency in 1965 as a vital component of the War On Poverty. That war is ongoing. The enemy is frightening in strength, ravaging our society mercilessly. Like all government programs, HUD’s lose billions of dollars to illegal fraud. And like all government programs, HUD’s have become infested with loopholes to the benefit of people who have no connection to poverty. Case in point: the Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG), a HUD-funded program administered in large part by the states.

On its website HUD declares its mission to be the creation of “strong, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all.” HUD has drifted widely from its original affordable housing mission, but even today nearly every HUD document focuses on alleviating the suffering of our most vulnerable citizens. Plain and simple, HUD is supposed to use your tax dollars to alleviate the plight of poor people. No amount of rationalization can alter the reality that HUD money diverted from this mission is HUD money perverted.

Such rationalization occurs when HUD money is funneled through the NYS Community Development Block Grant program to quality resorts and restaurants. While the NYS Office of Community Renewal does channel much HUD money to poverty fighting efforts, it has managed, in typical bureaucratic fashion, to pay homage to pork spending. This allows local governments to sponsor grant applications on behalf of local businesses that have absolutely nothing to do with helping poverty afflicted citizens.

Sadly, Canandaigua, like many other communities, uses this program to address its wish list rather than its needs list. HUD was created to address needs lists.

Canandaigua City Council has sponsored CDBG applications for the Canandaigua Hotel and Resort Center ($750,000) and for Nolan’s Restaurant ($400,000). It is now proposing to visit the trough once more on behalf of a downtown bar and restaurant. The thinking may be that poor people will find it convenient to leave their lakeside condos for the pleasure of enjoying high-end wine in downtown Canandaigua. President Johnson would be delighted.

I attended several public hearings whose subject was tax breaks for the Hotel and Resort Center. I heard a number of arguments made asserting that this project was vitally important to Canandaigua. None of those arguments involved helping poor people. Unless poor people regularly attend conferences or buy condos.

Canandaigua has an approximately 16 percent poverty rate. In discussions of the Hotel venture and the Nolan’s rebuild, reducing that number was never mentioned in my hearing.

But the CDBG program makes the employment of low- to moderate-income people a loophole through which just about any and all for-profit business enterprises can seek a HUD grant. Thus the employment of low- to moderate-income people became a primary talking point in supporting the previous grant applications and will now be used to justify the newest one. When it comes to latching onto HUD money, rooftop dining and conference centers quickly become secondary to employment of the needy.

Of course, a city can say that if it doesn’t take the grant money, tainted or not, someone else will. A city can, like Pontius Pilate, wash its hands and pass the buck on to the state, which makes the final call on grant applications. Or a city can bring pressure to bear on Albany to reform the way the Office of Community Renewal runs its CDBG program.

To their credit, some members of city council have spoken against sponsoring these grant applications. Not because they (as well as I) want to see the applicants fail in their business ventures but because they (as well as I) have a principled opposition to this abuse of HUD dollars.

I hope that a majority of city council will come over to this position. There are many ways to intercede on behalf of local business ventures. This grant program presents the laziest, most unprincipled option.

The Inquiring Taxpayer has contacted both HUD and state senator Helming about this pork barrel distortion of HUD’s mission. I encourage city council to do the same, to challenge this program rather than cooperate with it. Sure, the grants are allowed. The grants are legal. The grants have the state’s blessing. That doesn’t make them right. It’s time to say so.

Joe Nacca of Canandaigua is a frequent contributor to the Daily Messenger.