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Elizabeth Nelson's City Council Blog

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I write a City Council newsletter with my summary of agenda items coming before City Council. Sign up to receive it first via email, or read it here later on this blog.

Update on Prioritizing American Rescue Plan Funds

I posted previously about the process of prioritizing American Rescue Plan funds here:

https://www.a2elnel.com/post/prioritizing-american-rescue-plan-funds


Ahead of the October 18th Council meeting, I submitted a number of written questions about agenda item DC-2: the list of recommendations for spending American Rescue Plan (ARP) federal funds.

For example, I asked:

Question: This is described as a “final” recommendation-- I would like to see any preliminary drafts related of this recommendation that were written on or before July 20, 2021. (Councilmember Nelson) Response: Following a robust public engagement process, a final recommendation including public feedback will be brought back to council for final approval on December 6, 2021. There are no preliminary drafts of the recommendation for American Rescue Plan proceeds other than what has already been provided to Council.

The reason I asked that question, in particular, was that some of the recommendations in DC-2 stood out as inconsistent with what I understood to be our goals in using that money.


When the City first learned about the likely allocations of federal ARP funds, the former City Administrator asked us to trust that staff was working on recommendations to prioritize those funds most effectively. We were told not to make funding requests for pet projects and new ideas until we received those staff recommendations. It was explained to Council that strategic planning must be led by staff first, in order to maximize funds received, coordinate allocations with other regional organizations, identify earmarks (to prevent overlap in funding), and address a structural deficit. Just a few months ago, the directive from then City Administrator Tom Crawford was clear: before submitting suggestions for allocation of ARP funds, please wait to see staff recommendations about where to spend this money.


All of Council was given this directive to “wait and see” and most of my colleagues respected it. At least one of my colleagues did not.


At our meeting on October 18th, Council Member Song read a prepared statement that included this:

I’ve asked Mr. Fournier to consider programs that would align with these investments. I’m pleased that staff is proposing recovery dollars for three areas that I have been working with the community on. Those include: unarmed crisis response, a pilot of universal basic income, and additional dollars for our social service agencies …. I look forward to advocating for three if not more of these menu of options

(Note: the “three areas” of Council Member Song’s special interests amount to over $5 million, which is over 20% of the total ARP funds available.)


Council Member Song’s comments were surprising to me, given that all of Council had received the same explanation about why staff recommendations were the preferred starting point for discussion. At the table, I was relieved to hear Council Member Radina’s response to her remarks, which confirmed my own understanding and approach to the ARP funds:

In this process, in respect to the request that we not “pre-allocate” some of these dollars and not start thinking about it before staff had the opportunity to come back with some of the bigger items that they felt could have impact — I didn’t come in with a lot of the ideas.

WHY THIS MATTERS

Months ago, our former City Administrator directed us on a path for thoughtful and comprehensive assessment of City needs. He urged us to follow norms similar to our regular budgeting process: the starting point of discussion would come from City staff, reviewing and identifying the fundamental needs of the City and appropriate places for investment. Under the leadership of the former city administrator, recommendations for use of the ARP funds would have been produced without political interference from individual elected officials jockeying for influence.


An abrupt change in leadership has put us on a different path.


Council Member Radina identified exactly why the starting point for recommendations matters:

“I do want to make sure that we have opportunities for robust public feedback here particularly given that we are coming to this process with recommendations already laid out and knowing that that kind of sets the tone for the type of feedback that we will get.

NEXT STEPS

At the October 18th meeting, Council Member Radina asked:

What is the best way for Council, also, to provide feedback on the proposals that came forward or maybe things that we may think might be missing?”

In answer to that question, Assistant City Administrator John Fournier recommended:

the best way for Council to direct that feedback would simply be to communicate it directly to me.

That remark is somewhat ironic, given that October 18th was actually the official starting date for our new Interim City Administrator, Milton Dohoney, Jr.


The original version of agenda item DC-2 set a deadline of December 6th for final recommended allocations of the ARP funds; fortunately, Council agreed to amend that date to March 1, 2022. Mr. Dohoney did not happen to be at our most recent Council meeting (he was facilitating his relocation to Ann Arbor) but he will now have a little over four months to oversee public engagement and guide our allocation of the ARP funds. I look forward to meeting Mr. Dohoney this coming week and learning about how his significant experience and informed leadership will help move us forward.