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Orange details grant spending

ORANGE — Selectmen approved a plan last week for how the town will use next year’s community development block grant.

The plan includes:

∎ $315,000 for improving sidewalks on East River and Cheney streets in low and moderate income neighborhoods. The new walks will provide a smoother and safer surface for pedestrians of all ages and wheelchairs.

∎  $175,000 for improving conditions in low/moderate income households. Repairs will eliminate code violations, remove lead paint, and increase energy efficiency in five eligible housing units.

∎ $35,000 for social service programs that will be selected through an application process next month.

The grant budget is tentative, giving officials the wiggle room they need to research whether or not they can include funding for senior services.

“A growing number of Orange residents are seniors,” Volunteer Interim Community Development Director Karl Bittenbender said in an interview before the meeting, “We know the need is there.”

Bittenbender held a public hearing several weeks ago to solicit input on how 2013 block grant money should be spent. A dozen residents showed up to support continuing the Elder Outreach program, which helps seniors and disabled residents access financial assistance and other services they are entitled to but may not even know about.

The outreach program is currently funded by a one-time $20,000 grant from the Fallon Community Health Plan, which will be exhausted next month.

Bittenbender said he is “frantically searching” for funding to keep the program going. As part of that effort, he is looking into whether CDBG money can be used to support the program, but cautions there may be regulatory roadblocks in the way.

As block grant money was used to start-up the program, several years ago, and federal guidelines restrict using block grants for ongoing program support.

Bittenbender told selectmen he believes that block grant money may be used to renovate the senior center in the armory. The need for a “facelift” at the armory came to his attention after talking to a resident working the polls on election day. Underwhelmed by the peeling paint, worn carpets and exposed ductwork, she said, “This is how we treat our seniors?”

“She asked me to look more thoroughly at the (CDBG) regs, and I took up the challenge,” Bittenbender said. Since then, he has been combing the block grant regulations in search of new ways to use block grants to support the seniors.

He added that the town is in the process of hiring a full-time community development director who will be able to seek funding that will fill service gaps and other critical needs. For the past decade, the post has been vacant, and the community development block grant has been administered by Franklin County Housing and Redevelopment Authority in Turners Falls.

He said the agency “did a great job” at administering the grant, but “did not have a vested interest in supporting development projects” that fell outside the limited scope of the block grant funding restrictions.

Orange officials are currently interviewing candidates for the position.

Bittenbender said he hopes the new director will be on board by early January, just in time to complete the block grant application which is due in February.

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