Kalamazoo County accused of turning away several thousands in state funds to fight poverty

Kalamazoo County Building.PNG

Thousands of dollars in state funding to help impoverished people in Kalamazoo County are going unused. Instead, county leaders are sending that money back to the government. The question is, why?

“Year, after year, after year the county receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from the state to serve these individuals and year, after year the county sends hundreds of thousands of dollars back to the state, pretty much acknowledging, we can’t or we won’t service these individuals,” said Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners Chair Stephanie Moore.

Moore said the state money funds the Community Action Agency (CAA), created by the government to help address poverty on a local level instead of the state handling the issue.

“The goal of the Community Action Cgency is to serve the poor, underserved people in our community—those individuals that are living in some of the worst cases of poverty, to offer programs that would support them,” said Moore.

The chairwoman explained the Community Action Tripartite Advisory Board works with county elected officials to help determine what services the state funding should be used for. The advisory board is assembled of various people of demographics, economic status and backgrounds.

“One thing that the county has done historically is not been very transparent with this board about the total number of dollars that flow into the county, how it’s spent and then what actually goes back {to the state],” said Moore. “We don’t meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our community. It doesn’t matter if its urban, or if it’s in the rural areas. We’re doing a really poor job of it.”

She said because of the lack of transparency and, quite frankly, the lack of empathy, several thousands of dollars aren’t being used.

“I can just tell you, from piecing things together, that it is well over $200,000 a year that the county does not spend and sends back to the state,” said Moore, referring to county documents that show the amount of unused dollars. “Part of the money that we send back is for sustainable fuels. Those pellets that the people way out in the rural areas, where folks are even harder to reach, where the poverty is still just as devastating.”

When Moore said County Treasurer Mary Balkema became aware of the money being sent back to the state, Moore said she told Balkima, “You need to go to your County Administrator and tell her that we have some state funding available and quit sending it back and get it to the people so we can help them.”

“There should not be any money that is supposed to be allocated to help the impoverished and the most vulnerable in our county. There should not be one single penny that ever goes back to the state or to where it originally came from,” said Mona Lisa Watson, a former member of the Community Action Agency. “When the county doesn’t prove that there’s a need out there, then the money doesn’t increase. If they would actually use the money and say hey we’ve used it all and we still have a need the money could increase. But they’re not setting that case.”

Watson said part of the work she did with CAA, and still does now, is take a closer look at studies on poverty in Kalamazoo County.

“59 percent of Kalamazoo residents live in poverty. 36 percent of Kalamazoo County residents live in poverty,” said Watson. “The devastation of poverty in this county is huge and for too long the voices have been silent.”

She continued, “To know that there are resources in this community that are not really being accessed at the level that they need to be accessed nor are they being distributed the way that they need to be distributed is very concerning to me.”

Watson explained those in need across the county are utilizing designed to help those in poverty, but explained the number of people using those resources are rapidly increasing.

“These are not just people who are not working, these are working people. These are folks who we would consider transient poor—where they are literally one paycheck away from, one illness away from, one bad stroke of luck away from falling into poverty,” said Watson.

“It’s a quality of life issue. This will determine If people lose their house to foreclosure, or if people will have food on their table, or if children will have a roof over their head and I think that’s a serious matter that needs to be addressed,” said Moore.

Moore said there are plans to discuss how county leaders can come to together and fix this problem. She hopes that conversation starts at the next commission meeting.

“The dysfunction, the infighting on the current Kalamazoo County Commission, the failure to vote to adequately put folks on this board definitely contributes to that,” said Moore. “It’s not just Democrats or Republicans, it’s all across the board. The lack of compassion is all the way across the board.”

“Your average person who’s at work cannot make it to these meetings, that’s why they elect individuals to represent them. Then those elected induvial need to do their jobs to truly represent the populations they’ve been elected to represent,” said Watson.

Moore said this is an important reminder to voters when it comes to who can best represent the needs of communities.

“Year after year, people are campaigning, and knocking on doors and asking for the most powerful thing that we have, the only thing we have left which is our vote. And in return they don’t even say, ‘Well, you know there’s services, there’s supports, there’s resources there is help’,” said Moore. “If they’re not here to help us help you get out of this critical situation that you’re in. Go vote, just make sure you vote for the right person.”

Newschannel 3 filed a FOIA request for documents from Kalamazoo County to take a closer look at the amount of dollars going unused in 2017.

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