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Community engagement on American Rescue Plan Act dollars vary widely across the county

Will Tarter
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July 30, 2021
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When the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was passed, the federal government recognized that the $1.9 trillion plan offered a unique opportunity to greatly impact the future of the United States economy. Specifically, the $350 billion in one-time funding, which was earmarked for cities, counties and states across the country, offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure a more equitable economy of the future. In this blog post, we will explore why cities and counties are deploying community engagement strategies that may have differed from other federal funding in the past. We will then identify a few local examples of communities that have begun their public engagement process on how best to spend ARPA dollars.

 The $350 billion in one-time funding, which was earmarked for cities, counties and states across the country, offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure a more equitable economy of the future.

Why Community Engagement?

As public entities have begun to do community outreach related to ARPA spending, some may ask, “Why are local governments engaging so many community stakeholders? This is highly unusual.”  

In a way, it is because they have to. The federal government mandates it.  

The United States Treasury guidance (called the Interim Final Rule) provides language that encourages cities, counties and other government entities on the importance of engaging their community throughout the process of application of ARPA dollars. Most will be mandated to provide a quarterly Project and Expenditure report that “will include financial data, information on contracts and subawards over $50,000, types of projects funded, and other information.” For counties and metropolitan cities with populations over 250,000, the guidance specifically calls for the creation of an annual Recovery Plan Performance report, that must “include key performance indicators identified by the recipient and some mandatory indicators identified by Treasury to Treasury.”[1] These reports will have to be posted on a “public facing website” that will consistently inform the public on where and how the ARPA dollars are being spent. From the beginning of the administration of these funds, the Treasury department is highlighting public input, transparency and accountability. In fact, the U.S. Treasury department makes this point very clear:  

“These reporting requirements reflect the need for transparency and accountability, while recognizing and minimizing the burden, particularly for smaller local governments. Treasury urges State, territorial, Tribal, and local governments to engage their constituents and communities in developing plans to use these payments, given the scale of funding and its potential to catalyze broader economic recovery and rebuilding.”[2]

 These reporting requirements reflect the need for transparency and accountability, while recognizing and minimizing the burden, particularly for smaller local governments.

Due to the potential magnitude of these dollars, it is vital to ensure that public officials and the communities they serve are on the same page regarding community priorities. Local communities in Greater Cleveland have set up a variety of different ways of engaging the community.

Olmsted Falls

The City of Olmsted Falls, for example, has set up a survey called an “Online Citizen Poll” on its website. It asks residents to prioritize and rank their most important issues, among 15 different choices. According to city officials who were contacted for this article, residents have so far ranked “Nice Neighborhoods/No Dilapidated Structures” as their top priority.

Lakewood

The City of Lakewood took a slightly different approach. In addition to welcoming and pitching ideas, city officials explain that they also brainstormed policy areas that already had high community engagement and existing public support. That led to Mayor Meghan George proposing that Lakewood spend $25 million of the $47 million in ARPA funds on water and sewer infrastructure improvements. That legislative proposal was supported and passed by Lakewood City Council on July 19. The city was already going to raise rates to repair infrastructure in the city, but with the ARPA dollars in place, the increases will be less than originally proposed.[3]

Cleveland Heights

The City of Cleveland Heights has set up its own online survey and takes a slightly different approach from the other examples. In its survey, they list a number of different categories that would be eligible for ARPA funding. Each category has a description of what kind of programs would fall into that category description. Residents are then asked to rank their top choices of #1, #2 and #3. This survey approach is very interesting because it also educates the public on what kinds of uses are eligible for the ARPA dollars. According to Cleveland Heights City Manager Susanna Niermann O'Neil, the survey has already received over 800 responses.

Cleveland

The City of Cleveland has set up a public input survey that requests the public to submit ideas on where they would like to see the $511 million in dollars be spent. Unlike some of the surveys in other cities, Cleveland’s survey asks for individuals to identify if they are a resident or not, in which zip code they live, and in which ward they reside. This will be very interesting because officials can then see how preferences may vary across the geographic areas of the city. The survey asks for respondents to label the category in which their idea would fall, and provides a comment box to describe the idea and a box to provide an estimate on how much the idea would cost. Idea submissions are limited to 2,000 words. According to media reports, Cleveland residents can also submit ideas at drop boxes located across the city.[4]

Cuyahoga County

Cuyahoga County has set up a public input webpage that asks for citizens to submit their ideas on where and how these dollars should be spent. The county’s survey is the most open-ended of the surveys described in this article, as it only requests a person’s name, email and description and costs of the idea (with no character limit). There is no deadline identified for how long ideas will be received, nor a method listed on the website on how to submit ideas that may have an attachment, however county officials said that ideas with attachments can be submitted to Michele J. Pomerantz, Director of Regional Collaboration, at mpomerantz@cuyahogacounty.us.

Others

Other cities, such as the City of Euclid, do not have a survey set up but are encouraging residents to email Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer Gail with ideas and suggestions.  

Officials in Franklin County (Ohio) held a two-hour public meeting on July 15[5] to hear thoughts and feedback. Additionally, they created an email (ARP@FranklinCountyOhio.gov) where not only can people submit ideas and suggestions, but also send attachments.  

Hamilton County (Ohio) held two public hearings via zoom that also gathered community input, after the initial conceptual proposal was unveiled back in May.

Conclusion

The dollars coming in from the American Rescue Plan Act provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pursue a more equitable economic recovery. Public input, engagement and information will be critical to ensuring that positive effects of these dollars are felt for years to come.  

[1] https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2021-05-17/pdf/2021-10283.pdf  

[2] https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2021-05-17/pdf/2021-10283.pdf  

[3] https://www.cleveland.com/community/2021/07/lakewood-approves-impervious-surface-fee-and-tiered-water-rate-earmarks-arpa-funds-to-water-and-sewer-infrastructure.html  

[4] https://www.cleveland19.com/2021/07/25/how-should-cleveland-spend-511-million-city-asks-american-rescue-plan-investment-ideas/  

[5] https://www.dispatch.com/story/news/politics/2021/07/10/franklin-county-residents-asked-ideas-spending-stimulus-funds/7778648002/

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