Twin Falls City Hall

Pedestrians cross the street in front of City Hall at dusk on Aug. 6, 2018, in Twin Falls.

TWIN FALLS — The city could soon receive federal money annually to assist in its transition to an urban community.

Twin Falls City Council accepted its status as an Entitlement City under the federal Community Development Block Grant program Monday. With the designation, the city is eligible to receive a grant of about $342,000 each year from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to plan and pay for community development projects.

Twin Falls’ eligibility for the program is based on a 2018 report from the U.S. Census Bureau that estimates the city’s population to be greater than 50,000. Cities above that population threshold are classified as urban areas and must meet several service and infrastructure requirements.

The grant allows the city to pay for some of those projects that “develop viable urban communities by providing decent housing and a suitable living environment, and by expanding economic opportunities, principally for low- and moderate-income persons,” according to the HUD website.

The city may also apply up to 20% of its annual award — about $68,000 — to administrative costs.

In the first year, the administrative portion will be used to outline the city’s needs and a plan to spend the money, said city manager Travis Rothweiler last week during a presentation on the grant.

The heaviest lift is in the first year, Rothweiler said.

“There is a laundry list of different requirements that will slowly be making their way to us, and we don’t know what we don’t know,” he said. “I have yet to find the magical handbook and checklist that says ‘When you crest over 50,000 in population, these are all things and all the requirements that are going to come to you.’”

Once the city’s plan is approved by HUD, it would likely use 20% of the grant to hire an administrator to manage the consolidated plan, leaving about $275,000 a year to pay for projects in the plan.

But there’s a catch.

After joining the federal CDBG program, the city is no longer eligible to apply for CDBG grants through the state program overseen by the Idaho Department of Commerce, which allows smaller cities to compete for money for specific infrastructure projects.

The state program awarded Twin Falls about $1.5 million since 2011 to pay for projects related to the creation of the Chobani and Clif Bar facilities.

Over a similar eight-year period, the city would now receive about $2.7 million under the entitlement program and have more say in where it is spent. But the grants would come in smaller amounts and could not fully cover larger projects, Rothweiler said.

The Council’s decision was further complicated Monday when administrators announced that two organizations — El Milagro Housing and Gem State Dairy Products — had expressed interest in the competitive state grants in 2020 for infrastructure projects.

While the annual grant money could still supplement both projects, it would not entirely cover the cost of either. Gem State Dairy was seeking $500,000.

Still, the city may not have qualified and would have competed for the grants with 193 other cities in Idaho under the state program, Rothweiler said.

“It’s a very small pot of money provided across the entire state that is awarded on a very competitive basis,” Rothweiler said.

Councilwoman Suzanne Hawkins said she wanted the city to pursue those projects under the state program this year and consider joining the federal program next year.

“I’m not willing to pull the plug on those projects,” Hawkins said.

Council members Shawn Barigar, Greg Lanting and Christ Talkington said they would rather have the annual money, and each referred to it as a “bird in the hand.”

The Council voted 6-1 in favor of joining the federal program. Hawkins cast the lone dissenting vote.

The federal CDBG program has been in place since 1974, and awards about $3 billion to cities and states across the country each year. About 30% of the money goes to state programs, and the other 70% goes to cities under the entitlement program. About 2,000 cities participate in the entitlement program, including eight others in Idaho.

President Donald Trump’s budget does not include money for either state or federal CDBG programs. The last four presidential budgets did not include CDBG money, though the approved congressional budgets ultimately paid for the programs.

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