CLEVELAND — Republican Lee Weingart, one of the candidates running to succeed Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish this fall, criticized the recent announcement by Budish and County Council that more than a third of the county’s $240 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding may be set aside for discretionary accounts and used for projects of the executive or council member’s choosing.
Weingart sent a two-page letter to County Council President Pernel Jones on Friday morning, claiming that the proposed discretionary accounts run afoul of the county charter and, specifically, a portion of the charter that states: “No public money of, or under the control of, the County, from whatever source derived, shall be subject to appropriation, application, or distribution at the order or direction of any individual member of the Council.”
County officials have proposed setting aside $6 million per county council member for projects of their choosing. The county executive would receive $20 million, totaling $86 million, which accounts for nearly 36% of the county’s total ARPA allocation.
“The charter does not allow individual council members to direct funding, which is exactly what they’re trying to do with this slush fund,” Weingart said Friday. “It reminds me of the bad old days of county government. They are bringing back the corruption of the former county government in the form of this slush fund for special interests.”
In an emailed statement Friday afternoon, Council President Jones pushed back on Weingart’s criticism.
“Not one dollar will be appropriated, applied, or distributed at the order or direction of any individual council member. Just like every other County expenditure, all the ARPA/RESCUE Act Funds will be introduced through legislation, considered by the council, and only expended if a majority of Council approves the legislation,” Jones said in a statement.
Additionally, county officials have previously stated that a third-party accounting firm will review all ARPA spending to ensure it falls in line with federal regulations.
“The spirit of the charter is very clear: it doesn’t want to create 11 little fiefdoms for county council members to give out money at their discretion to outsiders and special interests,” Weingart said. “If they try to go around that very simple provision in the charter, which says ‘individual council members may not direct funding’ they are just subverting the will of the people. It’s just a subterfuge. It’s a smokescreen around the charter.”
Of the county’s total $240 million ARPA funding allocation, a series of specific projects totaling of $57 million has been publicly disclosed. On Thursday, County Executive Budish and several council members detailed the newest projects that have been identified through what Budish described as an ‘extensive collaborative, community process.”
The projects included nearly $9.5 million for multiple ‘transformational projects,’ including $8 million for the county’s Lakefront Access Plan; $3 million for affordable housing initiatives; more than $2 million for access, greenspace and recreational improvements in Cleveland’s central neighborhood; $2 million for blight reduction as well as more than $2 million for ‘aging in place’ programs for elderly residents in the county.
Both Weingart and his opponent, Democrat Chris Ronayne, said the lion’s share of ARPA funding should be used for economic recovery.
“We need to make sure that we are focused as to how we spend [ARPA money] otherwise we’re sprinkling the desert. We can’t do that,” Ronayne said Friday. “We have to be really really focused and collaborative about how we’re putting money in the field that is really going to net a synergistic benefit. We need to work together. We cannot fall into the trap where we are distributing dollars in a piecemeal basis without any focused plan.”
The once-in-a-lifetime injection of funding can have a profound impact on the future of the county, especially when it comes to economic growth, Weingart said.
“This is one-time money that the county has gotten from the federal government,” Weingart said. “We should be using it for transformative projects like, for example, my housing initiative that will help 10,000 families move into homes that they own.”
With $86 million potentially being set aside for discretionary accounts and an additional $57 million in specific projects, roughly 40% of the county’s ARPA allocation remains in play. Budish has previously stated that $50 million will be set aside to be used by the future county executive. Details on what the remaining $47 million will be used for have not been determined or publicly released.
“I would want to see that money principally spent on workforce and economic recovery and economic initiatives,” Ronayne said. “I do see that some of our communities have really deferred economic development needs… [T]his is a county that needs to invest in its people and its workforce to make sure we are growing the economic pie in Cuyahoga County.”