In Knox, one disabled resident who could not make it up and down stairs had a basement that was so cold the pipes would often freeze.

Selectman Galen Larrabee said, “Oh heck, we could take care of that,” and the Select Board awarded him a grant to have his basement insulated, one of a dozen housing rehabilitation projects funded in the town.

In Belfast, an affordable housing complex was built; Eat More Cheese, The Purple Baboon, Bella Books and other small businesses were given grants to help them become more sustainable; the sewer lagoons were covered.

Unity built its “Food Hub,” a farm products and Maine foods distribution center, and put a gym in its Community Center. Northport installed a new water system. Burnham, Brooks, Jackson, Monroe and Thorndike all got fire stations.

These are just a few of the Waldo County projects made possible by Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), a Housing and Urban Development program that supports municipalities in upgrading infrastructure, revitalizing their downtowns, spurring economic development and addressing slum and blight in low-income communities. (See full list below.)

The president's proposed federal budget, in the name of smaller government, would eliminate the program along with other federal grants available to municipalities. Most Waldo County towns do not want to see that happen.

Mayor Walter Ash of Belfast is a member of the Mayors' Coalition, an organization of  Maine mayors that sent a letter to Washington, D.C., arguing against ending Community Development Block Grants.

“With declines in other revenue sources, local communities have to have a way of getting resources to do these projects,” Ash said. “If you don’t have means to get financing, the stuff doesn’t happen.”

Cuts in state revenue sharing to municipalities, he said, “really cuts into the whole scheme of things you need money for: police, fire, emergency services. When you lose any of those things from cutbacks it affects your community pretty bad. (CDBG) is a way to get funding to do the things you need to do.”

Since its start in 1983, the Community Development Block Grant program has funded more than 100 Waldo County projects, and by 2016, at least $16.2 million in grants had been awarded in the county, according to the Maine Office of Community Development. The agency is responsible for allocating the CDBG money it receives from HUD into grant categories — including downtown revitalization, public infrastructure, micro-enterprise, and economic development — and awarding the funds to municipal applicants.

Belfast has been able to pull in the most CDBG funding in the county over that time — $7.2 million by 2016 — partly because it has a staff person dedicated to seeking out, applying for and reporting on grants for the city, and partly because many of the city’s projects fit the grant categories’ criteria.

Economic Development Director Thomas Kittredge has been on the job since the position was created in 2010. He said CDBG is one of the first grant programs he looks at when trying to find funding for a city project because it is designed for municipalities. He said the city also receives federal funding through grants from the Environmental Protection Agency Brownfields Program and the Economic Development Administration, also slated for cuts in the president’s budget.

“Were CDBG to disappear completely, which I think it would be a short-sighted decision,” Kittredge said during an interview in his office April 20, “We’d still do economic development but we’d have to shift our research to different funding sources. CDBG has been a reliable, stable one that has been a good fit for Belfast for a variety of projects. I’d venture to guess there is not an ideal replacement for CDBG out there.”

Government units are sometimes eligible for private foundation grants, but those would require different approaches to projects in their structure and phasing, and there would be a learning curve, Kittredge said. City staff understand the CDBG program and its requirements.

The grants have delivered tangible benefits. With CDBG housing assistance in 2011 and 2014, landlords and homeowners were able to rehabilitate 100 housing units on over 20 properties occupied by low- to moderate-income households. CDBG Economic Development program grants awarded to private businesses Front Street Shipyard and OnProcess Technology led to the creation of 147 full-time-equivalent jobs, 87 more than required by the grants.

A 2012 Downtown Revitalization grant improved streetscaping and structural elements on parts of Cross, Miller and Spring streets, which, Kittredge was told, led to the purchase of the former Mathews Brothers building on Spring Street by a developer who plans to open a business there this year.

“Part of our goal with that project was to revitalize unused or underutilized parcels or buildings,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but it happened for Mathews Brothers.”

Before his position was created, Kittredge said the city would often contract with Eastern Maine Development Corp., the organization that administers CDBG grants for the region, to develop its grant applications. Towns without dedicated economic development staff may work with EMDC or councils of government, regional planning commissions or independent consultants when applying for grants.

Vicki Rosbult, director of “Reengineer the Region” and Planning at EMDC in Bangor, said the organization can work with municipalities to recommend a category of funding, and to review and strengthen their applications, all free of charge. Additionally, she sometimes contracts with towns to write their grant applications.

Other than Belfast, with 35 grants, and Unity with 11, Waldo County towns have received just a few grants each over the past 25 years, and only five municipalities in the county received CDBG grants in the last five years. But all municipal officials interviewed said the grants have benefited their towns and that they plan to apply for more in the future.

Unity Board of Selectmen Chairman Emily Newell said town leadership hasn’t been capable of applying for grants because they are “strapped for time dealing with purely the government aspect.” But the grants received have made more money available for economic development because many of the projects funded have occurred inside the town’s TIF (tax increment financing) district.

Community organization Unity Barn Raisers was formed about 20 years ago by a group of residents who recognized that the town needed help applying for grants, and it secured several CDBG grants for downtown revitalization projects, a community gym and wellness center, and a community boat-building program.

“This funding has really allowed us to do things that we wouldn’t normally be able to do,” said UBR Programs Director Mary Leaming. “Western Waldo County has high needs and not a ton of resources, and we rely on outside funding to help with some of these projects.”

The town’s 2011 grant to renovate buildings for a food hub was coordinated on behalf of the city by nonprofit organization Maine Farmland Trust.

Knox received a housing assistance grant in 2001 and 2003 by collaborating with the towns Waldo and Morrill, but hasn’t received any funding since. Part of the Maine requirements for awarding CDBG grants is that a recipient town have a “community development plan.”

Rosbult said because the application process is so competitive, she recommends that towns applying for those grants have a comprehensive plan.

“The community must either have a long-term growth management strategy (certified by the state) or better yet, a comprehensive plan current within the 10-year mark and on file in order to receive preference during the grant review process,” she said.

Selectman Galen Larrabee said by phone April 25 that the town’s comprehensive plan has not been updated since the early 1990s, but the Planning Board has some money set aside to work on it.

“We haven’t had a big need lately to do a project, so CDBG hasn’t been on our radar screen, but it’s time for us to try again,” he said.

Burnham had help from a consultant in developing a comprehensive plan and writing grant proposals, and was able to secure a CDBG housing assistance grant in 2011.

“Certainly it has helped a lot of people on the edge financially,” Selectman George Robison said. “I will be keeping my eye open for any more that are available, mostly for quality-of-life improvement issues. If anything comes up that will be helpful, we will pursue it.”

The amount of CDBG funds flowing to Maine has gone down in recent years, putting a strain on the program. The application process has become more competitive and some communities have had to defer important infrastructure projects for lack of funding.

“It just seems like it’s getting tougher and tougher to find the grant funding. CDBG has been decreasing,” Kittredge said. “So you have to be a better grant writer.”

Maine Municipal Association pointed out in testimony for a recent bill, LD 165, that with initial CDBG funding levels to the state at $12 million in 1983, the “allocation stayed just ahead of inflation” until it peaked at $28 million in 2003. Since then the state allocation has dropped to $9 million in 2016, “roughly one-third of what was allocated in 1983 when adjusted for inflation.”

During a committee hearing Feb. 16, an association representative said, “Communities throughout Maine have deferred projects that undoubtedly (could) used additional CDBG funding assistance. MMA is aware of several that have applied this year specifically to address significant sewer and water treatment infrastructure needs.”

To help fill that gap, Rep. John Madigan, D- Rumford, proposed in the bill, which failed, that the state match federal CDBG funds with $3 million from the General Fund. His town had put extensive resources into preparing to apply for a 2017 CDBG public infrastructure grant to replace water and sewer pipes, only to find out from Maine Office of Community Development that four 2016 applicants would be getting the full $3.5 million allocated to public infrastructure grants for 2017.

MMA neither supported nor opposed the bill, citing as its reason that the association's first priority is seeing revenue sharing increased, and Madigan's bill would have competed for funds from the same source.

Lincolnville was one of the lucky few municipalities to have public infrastructure grant applications approved for 2017. The town will receive $500,000 for sewer upgrades if residents vote to accept the grant.

“Lincolnville Sewer wouldn’t be able to do the project without it,” Town Administrator David Kinney said. The application was initially denied the year before because, he said, the state “wanted us to be closer to shovel-ready.” It had only one $250,000 grant for the project when it first applied, but after obtaining $2.6 million in additional funding for the project through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, its next application was approved, Kinney said. This was the first time the town had applied for a CDBG grant during his 14 years with the town. Former Rockland Community Development Director Rodney Lynch assisted with the application.

Kittredge spoke about some of the arguments against the program, such as the potential for fraud, unsuccessful projects, government waste, and the regulations, or “strings attached.”

He said any program that has been around as long as CDBG and which distributes millions and millions of dollars among a large number of communities and participants is bound to have a “handful of examples” where the money hasn’t been spent on what it was supposed to be spent on, or people did not think it was a worthwhile project.

“We try to meet all the compliance to be able to close out grants and provide benefits,” he said. “There are rules attached, and people probably think there are too many regulations, but there’s a use for them and we think it’s a solid program and it would be a shame if it disappeared.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that Stockton Springs had received a grant to construct affordable elderly housing, based on data provided by the Maine Office of Community Development. Town officials informed us that the town neither applied for nor receive that grant, nor was an affordable elderly housing complex constructed.