$718M in COVID relief: Local governments weigh how to spend it

Advocates, residents push for transparency as decisions are made.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a Dayton Daily News investigative project titled Billions in COVID aid: Where it’s going. Go here for more on this project, including searchable databases showing how your community spent CARES Act funds and now much it is getting in American Rescue Plan funds.

Local elected officials deciding how to spend hundreds of millions from the federal American Rescue Plan said they are focusing on sustainable projects that will benefit those who need it most.

The Dayton Daily News surveyed area residents and statewide advocacy groups on the left and right, and took their suggestions, questions and concerns to local government officials. This is part of a new project tracking how billions of dollars in COVID relief funds are being spent locally.

Among dozens who responded to an online Dayton Daily News survey, recurring concerns included who will decide where this money will go and how will they make sure it is going to people who really need it.

“Is it being truly spent to address the needs of our community?” a respondent from Springfield asked.

The American Rescue Plan Act allocated $718.7 million combined to the 230 governments in our nine-county region. Fifty-three counties, cities and townships received more than $1 million; 11 received more than $10 million. Dayton received the most, $138 million.

Elected officials — city councilmembers, county commissioners, township trustees, etc. — ultimately will decide how the money is spent. Some restrictions exist, but not many. The money has to be obligated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

“Our overarching goal is we want to look back 50 years from now and still tell you how these dollars were spent in our community, we want projects that will have a long-term lasting impact for our community,” said Bryan Heck, city manager of Springfield, which received $44.2 million, the second most for an area city.

Policy Matters Ohio, a liberal think tank, recently released a “menu” of ways state and local leaders could make a lasting impact with ARPA funds.

“This money is not a normal, regular course of business investment in communities,” said Hannah Halbert, Policy Matters Ohio executive director. “These funds were designated for some specific purposes, to make impacts on communities and the lives of people who were hardest hit by the pandemic, and treating this as business as usual goes against those stated purposes.”

Recommendations from her group include expanding child care, promoting alternatives to armed policing, providing hazard pay to front-line employees, providing paid leave for public employees, and expanding job training through apprenticeship programs.

The Buckeye Institute, a conservative think tank, says the money should be used for one-time projects like infrastructure, water and sewer projects, and expanding broadband. It also advocates expanding the state’s Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison program to reduce prison overcrowding.

“You’re seeing a surplus of funds coming in to fill a hole that wasn’t really a hole,” said Rea Hederman, vice president of policy at the Buckeye Institute. “What you don’t want to do is take a one-time amount of money and use it for permanent spending programs.”

Was community input sought?

People who took our survey asked how local leaders are surmising what the public wants as they decide how to spend this money.

“What has (each) community wanted? Have they been surveyed?” asked Annie Sonner of Darke County.

Darke County Commission President Matt Aultman said they created an ARPA committee consisting of himself and other county office holders that holds monthly public meetings attended by village and township officials, as well as the public. The next meeting is in June. He encourages anyone interested in discussions of how the county will spend its $9.9 million to sign up for meeting notices and attend.

“You have your sleepless nights thinking about this stuff,” he said. “It’s a transformative amount of money that you have to look at the impact more than one or two years down the road.”

Most of the local governments that received the largest amounts of ARPA funds didn’t do a significant campaign to seek out specific public input.

Dayton did the most on this front. City leaders conducted an online survey from June 28 to July 9, solicited project proposals in September and October, and held public presentations in December before adopting a plan Dec. 15 to spend $138 million. The city contracted with consultant Guidehouse Inc. to help develop and administer its plan under a contract that runs through 2026 for up to nearly $2.1 million.

“From the get-go we said we’ve got to use these dollars in an effective and strategic way, we included citizen and resident input, and I’m committed to being involved at every stage of this to really make sure it does have an impact,” City Commissioner Darryl Fairchild said.

Still, the city has been criticized for a process some say was confusing and rushed. Resident Sade Dike criticized the city for not releasing demographic information about survey respondents, and organized a petition asking the city to extend the deadline to apply for funds for community projects.

Policy Matters Ohio endorses a process called participatory budgeting as governments consider how to use ARPA funds. In Cleveland, for example, a group called Participatory Budgeting Cleveland — or PB CLE — is proposing Cleveland award them $30.8 million of the $512 million it is receiving. That number is significant because Cleveland’s poverty rate is 30.8%. PB CLE would then conduct an intensive public input process to determine how the community wants the relief money spent.

“There is not a rushed timeline on this and I hope our local government elected leaders look at it that way and really invest in that engagement with the community,” said Daniel Ortiz, one of the leaders of PB CLE.

The decision process

Local county governments were some of the largest recipients of ARPA funds, and by and large didn’t do surveys or community forums. Several formed special committees that hold public meetings to discuss how the money will be spent.

Montgomery County’s $103.3 million is the second-largest ARPA award in the region.

“The process was to survey elected officials and agency directors and have them develop a list of priorities they would like to use the funding for, based on the ARPA guidelines that were established at that time,” said county spokeswoman Deb Decker. “Once every department created their lists, and it was determined the requests met federal requirements, the items were weighted based on impact and the level it improved public service.”

Credit: Cornelius Frolik

Credit: Cornelius Frolik

Most of the county’s money will be used to fund and improve county facilities and operations. “We believe these types of investments will benefit all county citizens,” Decker said.

Warren County Commissioner Dave Young — they are deciding how to spend $45.6 million — said surveys and community forums don’t necessarily reflect what the community needs or wants.

“You only get the super-interested parties that might have a vested interest in money flowing to this area or that,” he said. “We’re the elected representatives.”

Clark County ($26 million) and Miami County ($20.8 million) commissioners mentioned forming committees similar to Darke County. Butler County ($74.4 million) reached out to service agencies and asked them to submit proposals, which were ranked by county commissioners and are now being vetted through a process that will include public meetings, Butler County Commission President Don Dixon said.

“We will have a public discussion about it,” he said.

Greene County ($32.8 million) hired consultant The Greentree Group for up to $250,000 to help prioritize projects.

“We used a consultant so everyone was arms length from what the decision making process was. We took the politics out of the process,” said Greene County Commission President Tom Koogler. “It’s a one-time shot, and we want to make sure we are going to get the biggest bang for our dollars.”

Greentree in January submitted a report ranking unsolicited community projects based on criteria including sustainability, whether it meets federal guidelines, and whether it’s realistic. Top ranked projects were grants to United Way of Greater Dayton for emergency response; providing $1 million to Wright State University School of Medicine for a simulation center; and $46,190 for Michael’s House upgrades and operations.

Equity, sustainability, transparency

Several survey respondents expressed concerns about whether the money would go to people who really need it. Policy Matters Ohio notes that the U.S. Treasury’s guidance emphasized using the money to assist disadvantaged communities that suffered a disproportionate impact from the pandemic.

The Health Equity Network of Ohio in April released a health equity assessment tool that governments can use to assess how projects impact the health of communities, taking into account determinants of health such as income, education, family, housing, food security and access to transportation.

“Policy decisions impact the determinants of health — and ultimately the health of a community — and should be considered in the decision-making process,” the tool’s authors wrote.

Dayton’s plan specifies assisting targeted ZIP codes and minority-owned businesses. Other communities say they have initiatives that will help disadvantaged populations in other ways.

Butler County is looking at working with food pantries, homeless shelters and senior centers, Dixon said, as well as job training and creation.

“We’re not trying to just make sure they have the basic shelter and food and clothing today, it’s to help them move forward so they can get out of the poverty position into job training and a job earning money and being on their own,” he said.

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Springfield is looking at addressing homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, Heck said.

“A large portion of the dollars are committed to that,” he said.

He also said that paying for water and sewer projects with ARPA money, like Springfield and many other local government are looking at, will keep utility costs lower, benefitting all residents.

Warren County is looking at helping working families access child care. Clark County is exploring creating a facility to divert people with mental health and addiction issues into treatment instead of jail. Montgomery County said its construction contracts will benefit minority vendors, and it is improving services and facilities for several county programs that assist vulnerable populations.

Local officials unanimously insist that projects and programs being paid for with ARPA are either temporary or will be self-sustaining so they won’t need to cut services or increase taxes to pay for it when the one-time federal money is gone.

Finally, as local leaders make these decisions, advocates and residents say transparency is key.

“Leaders need transparent accounting for every penny that they spend,” said a survey respondent from Bellbrook.

Some governments, such as Clark County and Miami County, have launched websites listing each project, its cost and the voted resolution authorizing it.

“We’re trying to be as transparent and open to the public as we can,” said Miami County Commission President Ted Mercer.

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