Canton Repository

April 18, 2003

Grant will help poor buy cars

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — Low-income workers who need transportation to work but who do not qualify for a loan to buy a car will benefit from a $1.5 million federal grant directed to Stark, Tuscarawas and Summit counties.

The U.S. Department of Transportation this week announced the grant, which will help organizations in the three counties expand existing programs that provide loans to the poor to buy cars.

“It’s been a great program,” said Fred Weingarth, executive director of Personal and Family Counseling Services in New Philadelphia, which runs the program in Tuscarawas County. “The people we help are so grateful. We’re basically their last chance to get a car.”

Family Services in Canton, which coordinates the program in Stark County, expects to receive $500,000 from the grant, said Robin Seemann, program coordinator. That amount would pay for another 180 loans, she said.

Robert Labbe, president of Family Services of Summit County, said the grant “makes it possible for us to reach more families” in Summit County. Labbe and Weingarth don’t know what portion of the grant their counties would receive.

Although the loan programs have existed in the three counties for several years, this is the first time they are benefiting from federal funds. Up to now, the programs have drawn support from local grants and, in the case of Stark and Tuscarawas counties, donations from the Sisters of Charity, an order of Catholic nuns in Canton.

Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, secured the $1.5 million by writing it into a federal transportation spending bill as an earmark. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Regula is among a small group of lawmakers who write legislation that determines how federal tax dollars are spent. Regula’s congressional district includes Stark County.

The funds come through a federal program called Job Access and Reverse Commute, designed to help welfare recipients make the transition to employment. The grant went to Ways to Work in Milwaukee, Wis., which will administer the money for Ohio.

The loans are available to low-income applicants who have at least one minor child, are employed and who can demonstrate they are able to repay the money. Under federal rules, the loans can be used only to buy or repair a used car, not to purchase insurance.

In Stark County, 159 families have benefited from loans during the past couple of years. No new loans have been available since October because all the funds have been tied up in the 108 loans that are outstanding, Seemann said.

Loans up to $3,000 are available in Stark. The term is two years with an 8 percent interest rate. Seemann said the organization had to put up local matching funds to get the federal money. The match includes $300,000, which is being used to provide loans in the existing program.

In Tuscarawas County, the maximum loan is $2,200, Weingarth said. The two-year loans have an 8 percent interest rate. A separate program in Tuscarawas offers a $2,000 grant to help purchase a vehicle. The loan program has helped 170 families buy autos, he said.

An announcement from the Department of Transportation said the grant also would finance loans in Portage County. Local program administrators were unaware that Portage was included. Federal officials were unavailable for comment Thursday night.