By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
City Council approved the immediate use of $450,000 in American Rescue Plan funding to extend food distribution and housing assistance efforts through July during Tuesday’s legislative meeting.
Like localities across the country, Alexandria is set to receive a direct influx of funding from the ARP, the $1.9 trillion federal COVID-19 stimulus package that President Joseph Biden signed into law on March 11. The city is expected to receive $59.4 million in direct funding, while Alexandria City Public Schools will receive about $35.4 million.
The city is required to spend the $59.4 million within the next 45 months, by Dec. 31, 2024, and the funding will be allocated in two equal allotments of $29.7 million. The city will receive the first tranche of $29.7 million in May 2021 and the second in May 2022.
The stimulus package also includes opportunities for state and local governments to receive grants in specific categorical programs, including those in public health, education, the arts, housing and transit.
City Manager Mark Jinks and Dana Wedeles, a city planner and special assistant to the city manager, presented a preliminary timeline at the meeting for how the city will determine its use of the funding over the next year and beyond.
According to Wedeles, the ARP requires that localities only spend the funding to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and its negative economic impacts on households, small businesses and nonprofits; address reductions in city revenue due to the pandemic; and make necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.
However, Wedeles noted that the three permitted uses are still relatively vague, and that the city is waiting for further definition before it proceeds with a concrete spending plan.
“They don’t necessarily give us a lot of understanding as to what we can and can’t do, so we’re waiting for further regulations that will define them,” Wedeles said.
The city will present to council a plan for how to spend the first allotment of ARP funds on July 6.
In addition to the immediate allocation of the first $450,000 in ARP funds, staff laid out a timeline for community input prior to presenting the more detailed funding plan in July.
Throughout April the city will seek community input on how the money should be spent. However, several residents who spoke at the legislative meeting already had ideas. Residents Thomas Harper and Katherine Waynick specifically called on the city to invest ARP funds into stormwater infrastructure and flood mitigation.
Harper, a Del Ray resident, said that he and his neighbors had consistently been impacted by flooding events in 2019 and 2020 and that they have called on the city to put in a drain on their street.
“The final straw for me in coming to you was a couple days ago when I was told there was not enough money to do this project and prevent our homes from receiving more damage and causing safety issues for myself and my neighbors,” Harper said. “… There should be more than enough to add a simple drain to our street.”
Waynick echoed Harper’s comments and shared pictures of sewage overflowing into streets and homes and a video of water bubbling out of a toilet.
“It’s easy to become desensitized to the impacts these events are having on residents,” Waynick said. “… For many, this goes beyond a financial burden and has become a public health and safety crisis.”
According to Wedeles, the city is considering potential infrastructure projects that could be complete in the designated ARP spending timeline and whether those projects could be accomplished by other state-level funding sources.
“We want to make sure that we’re not specifically looking at projects that could be funded through other streams down the line,” Wedeles said.
“This is a one-time opportunity for such a large amount of funding to be invested in the community and we want to make sure that we take advantage of the great ideas that are out there while also ensuring we are being strategic in our approach and building a framework for the decision-making process,” Wedeles added.
Councilor Del Pepper urged the city to focus its efforts on flood mitigation while also advising the city to find any and every way to ensure no money is left on the table.
“We must spend that money, and God only knows we have plenty of things we could spend it on,” Pepper said.
Councilor John Chapman, who supported coordinating with ACPS and the School Board, expressed concern that ACPS’ ARP spending goals are short sighted.
“I do think this is onetime money that, right now, ACPS is kind of looking at [with] a very limited focus instead of broadening that. Hopefully we can have those discussions with them,” Chapman said.
Mayor Justin Wilson reminded city staff and his fellow council members that residents and business owners have the opportunity to access additional ARP funding outside of what the city can provide.
“There is a lot of money outside of this money that has nothing to do with the money we’re getting, and a lot … of it can benefit our residents directly,” Wilson said. “We need to make sure they are aware of what they qualify for, same thing with our small businesses.”
According to Jinks, the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership is already helping business owners access business loans as well as restaurant and entertainment relief that is available in the ARP.
Councilor Amy Jackson made a motion to receive staff’s report, start the public engagement process, develop a spending plan and approve the $450,000 allotment. Pepper seconded the motion, and it was approved unanimously 6-0.
Councilor Mo Seifeldein was not present during the vote. Seifeldein left the virtual meeting after the mayor refused to let him continue asking questions of city staff and public speakers during the public discussion period of the meeting.
Seifeldein insisted Wilson cite a section of the city code allowing him to prevent a council member from asking questions. Wilson argued that the matter at hand was a private dispute between residents and a senior living facility that the city no longer had a role in. After several minutes of back and forth, Seifeldein left the Zoom call about 30 minutes into the meeting.