CLEVELAND — The Cleveland City Council has approved a Nov. 1 deadline to come up with its own recommendations on how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in coronavirus relief money. After some members voiced displeasure with the process in which Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration identified how to spend $511 million in American Rescue Plan Money (APRA) last month, the council convened a special meeting to establish a working group that will be tasked with formulating the body’s own spending plan before later reconciling it with the mayor’s recommendations.
Last Monday, a plurality of council members opted to convene during the special meeting — a rare move because it bypassed Council President and mayoral contender, Kevin Kelley. At the special meeting, Ward 3 Councilman Kerry McCormack floated the proposal of the working group, which would be comprised of chairpersons of various Council committees, that will have until Nov. 1 to make expenditure recommendations. The deadline falls on the day before the general election, which will decide several contested council races and a new mayor.
Two weeks ago, Jackson’s administration outlined the broad objectives behind the expenditure recommendations of the first round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, which amounts to $255 million. The primary purpose of the funding is to allow the city to recoup lost revenues as a result of the pandemic, including hotel and lodging taxes as well as income taxes. The secondary objective of the funding comes with very few strings attached to it, providing the city with the rare opportunity to embark on potentially transformative projects and programs.
Jackson’s spending plan calls for the allocation of nearly $110 million to offset revenue shortfalls. His chief of staff, Sharon Dumas, outlined the rest of the proposed expenditures at a virtual press conference last year. Some of the expenditures include new EMS vehicles and other public safety investments; $75 million for economic and community development initiatives and an additional $15 million for demolition of strategic properties.
The infusion of stimulus money could also potentially free up public money that is already earmarked for various purposes within the city budget.
“It’s basic physics: for every action, there is a reaction,” said Councilman Mike Polensek (Ward 8). “These funds that we are receiving obviously have the potential to free up other city dollars. This is an opportunity for us to do things that we are never going to have the ability to do again.”
Polensek and other council members expressed a strong desire to immediately allocate ARPA money for ‘low hanging fruit’ like blighted home demolitions and EMS vehicles. Although most council members agree on the broad categories that should receive funding — public health, public safety, infrastructure, and economic development — there is still little specificity on what would be funded and by how much.
Councilman Basheer Jones (Ward 7) urged members of council to begin disbursing the stimulus funds as quickly as possible. He was the lone council member to vote against the creation of the working group and the Nov. 1 deadline.
“We’ve been fighting to do this month,” Jones said. “But now what seems to me is that this is becoming more political than it is about the people. The people need services right now. Not tomorrow, not next week. People need these situations right now. My residents need their homes repaired right now. They need their streets fixed right now. We have to stop being people of words and be people of action.”
Councilman Joe Jones (Ward 1) noted that the working group will be making its recommendations on the council’s spending plan at a time when many members are in the final stretches of their campaigns for re-election.
“To try to rush this in during a period of time where all of the council members are actually in campaigns in their respective territories is really in its nature not the right space and time,” Jones said.
Although the rules and regulations of how the city can spend the APRA money come with fewer stipulations than most federal programs, municipalities are required to have every dollar earmarked by 2024. Expenditures must be complete by 2026.
Because of the sheer amount of money and the litany of different projects and programs that it could potentially fund, several council members said they still need significantly more information.
“Let’s face it, everybody, we’re not out of COVID yet. We’re still in this,” said Councilman Blaine Griffin (Ward 6). “Part of these funds are to make sure that we position our communities so that if we are hit with this crisis again or if we continue to be amidst this crisis that our communities can be sustainable and thrive. This 133rd Council has the right to deliberate over these dollars and not kick it to the next administration.”
So far, $25 million has been earmarked and approved by the City Council. The council approved the allocation of $5 million for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank to be used as part of its ongoing expansion project. The GCFB has continued to meet the overwhelming demand for services and food since the first weeks of the pandemic. The non-profit shattered records in 2020 for families served.
An additional $20 million has been earmarked and approved to improve broadband connectivity around the city.