Just three Cleveland City Council meetings remain this year if the Jackson administration wants to pass its proposed ARPA spending plan for the first half of the city’s $511 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. Any legislation, written or amended by the city council, would still need to move through the Development, Planning & Sustainability (DPS) and Finance committees before it can be voted on. This leaves the Jackson administration with little time to make their final marks on the city of Cleveland.
If council doesn’t pass legislation, then mayor-elect Bibb will have the opportunity to work with the new city council to allocate this portion of the ARPA dollars.
Some council members are urging city hall to take it slow, setting up a debate between Cleveland officials who want to pass their spending priorities and city council members who are favorable to allowing a new administration to shape the agenda.
At last week’s ARPA working group meeting, Ward 15 council member Jenny Spencer argued against spending the funds too quickly. “I think that we will take action,” she said. “I’m looking forward to that. I think it is this balance of, we don’t want to feel so much time pressure that we don’t make strategic decisions, while at the same time acknowledging that these are crisis dollars.”
According to ARPA guidelines, cities have until Dec. 31, 2024 to allocate funds and Dec. 31, 2026 to spend them. Yet last week, Jackson’s chief of staff, Sharon Dumas, urged the council’s working group on ARPA funds to pass legislation quickly so it doesn’t lose access to funding.
“If you’re in a crisis, they expect that you move quickly because you have a crisis,” Dumas said. “I’m not suggesting anything get passed, hurried or anything like that. But there’s going to be a reporting process and you’re going to have to show the impact of the money, that it’s going in the direction that you’re saying it’s going in.”
Dumas claimed that the city’s ARPA funding could get reallocated to other cities if it’s not spent quickly, although that’s contrary to the Treasury guidelines.
“What happens in every grant, and this one, someone’s going to come along and say that Cleveland didn’t spend their money … and they’re going to go back to the cities and say, ‘Who’s ready with your programs for this?’” she said. “And they’re going to move funds … away from your program to someone who is spending those funds.”
Taking it slow
Contrary to Dumas’ assertion, most cities are taking it slow with ARPA funds, according to a recent report published by the Brookings Foundation. The top 20 cities with the highest amount of federal relief (of which Cleveland is #8) have only spent about 18% of their funds so far, and many cities have spent nothing, according to the authors. Federal guidelines suggest cities do not spend all of their funds immediately to ensure that they can effectively respond to the changing public health crisis, they write.
“This is not necessarily surprising nor worrisome,” the authors note. “Cities have received only half of their FRF dollars, with the second half scheduled to arrive in May 2022. Moreover, the Treasury counseled cities to not commit all of their dollars immediately, so that they could respond to changing health and economic circumstances over the coming months.”
“Perhaps the most important takeaway from this initial scan of city recovery plans is how much room remains for city leaders to adopt thoughtful, evidence-based, equity-oriented approaches to using these substantial one-time funds,” say authors Alan Berube and Eli Byerly-Duke.
Cleveland is also spending more of its stimulus money for revenue recovery than other Northeast Ohio cities. Because many cities have not moved quickly with their spending plans, preferring instead to take their time to analyze their needs, the Treasury Department has moved the first deadline for the spending back to the end of January 2022.
Speeding up planning
Some policy organizations like Greater Ohio have called for “slowing down the spending, speeding up the planning.” Cleveland didn’t hold any public meetings to gather citizen input into their needs, but it did send out a survey to gather resident ideas (The Land and Documenters analyzed responses). At the recent DPS meeting, some council members complained they hadn’t heard the city’s plans in detail until now, despite the fact that nearly six months had elapsed since the ARPA dollars were first received.
Dumas countered that the city must get moving now to deploy the spending and meet ongoing reporting requirements. “Those dates are accurate but there are processes in the middle that will take some time,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that you have until 2024 to allocate funds. You have to make some decisions. You don’t want to have not spent or allocated these funds to a process when you receive the second half. There’s going to be an evaluation process then.”
Spencer also wondered if Mayor Jackson’s proposed legislation would hamstring mayor-elect Justin Bibb. “My only question here is are we going to be passing a piece of legislation that is so specific that we are locking ourselves in, or is there going to be flexibility for a new administration to come in and implement as they see fit?” she asked.
Dumas said that the funding is mostly allocated to existing programs and Bibb could make changes after he takes office. DPS chair and Ward 12 council member Tony Brancatelli said the council could, too. “We introduce legislation and we can change legislation as we move on,” he said. “That’s part of our function.”
Cleveland City Council will continue debating amendments to the ARPA legislation at upcoming meetings. If the legislation does not pass before January, the council may have to start from square one with the new administration and several new councilmembers. Regardless, Bibb and his administration will have its chance to implement its priorities with the second half of the $511 million coming in May 2022.
Search agendas, legislation, and upcoming city council meeting notices here: https://clevelandcitycouncil.org/. Watch city council meetings here: https://www.youtube.com/user/clevelandcitycouncil. Follow Jenna’s Documenter threads here: https://twitter.com/jennaceetee/status/1460614574391148544
Jenna Thomas is a recent graduate of Cleveland State University with her master’s degree in Public Administration and a Cleveland Documenter.
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