City discusses American Rescue Plan Act funding

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City discusses American Rescue Plan Act funding
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By Katherine Hapgood | khapgood@alextimes.com 

During the public hearing on Saturday, residents had the opportunity to voice their thoughts on where some of the $59.4 million awarded to the city through the American Rescue Plan Act should go.

In March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, which established the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Act Fund. About $360 billion of the fund will go directly to states and jurisdictions across the country, which can be spent to address issues exacerbated by the pandemic.

Alexandria received $59.4 million from this act, which will be distributed in two equal allotments in May 2021 and May 2022. According to a news release, the city plans to spend the money on “improving life in Alexandria, for both the community’s immediate recovery needs and as a longterm investment.”

The public hearing held on Saturday was the first opportunity that Alexandrians had to provide input regarding the initial allocation of money from the federal government. The majority of the ARPA discussion revolved around moving certain projects up a tier on the city’s plan.

In order to collect public input on how the money should be used, the city released a survey and held two public engagement sessions between April 30 and May 13. The city received more than 1,300 responses.

The aggregated responses are shown as percentages rather than dollar amounts. (Data/City of Alexandria)

In those responses, residents expressed concerns about a variety of issues. However, the majority of respondents prioritized investments in the city’s infrastructure, particularly the stormwater system that has been frequently overwhelmed during intense storm events. According to the city, 19.65% of those surveyed would prioritize infrastructure, 14.01% would prioritize business and workforce recovery and 13.01% would prioritize health and social services.

To decide which projects are prioritized, the city is using a tiered system. According to the city’s website, Tier 1 and Tier 2 are for projects that are “shovel ready.” This means the project or program could be started immediately, and would have high impact on the community. Examples of the city’s designated Tier 1 and Tier 2 projects include the Rental Resiliency program and Stormwater State of Good Repair and Resiliency.

For both projects, residents have expressed a need for the services, and for the Rental Resiliency program there is already a state program model in place to assist the city.

Tier 3 and Tier 4 are for projects and programs that may not be as urgent as Tiers 1 and 2, may not be ready to start immediately or may need more work to become “shovel ready.” Examples of Tier 3 and 4 projects are the Digital Equity Plan and seed funding for the Alexandria Arts District Community Development Authority.

Residents and business owners have expressed a desire for these two projects, but they are currently seen as less vital to the community as a whole and also need more planning.

Beyond Tier 4 are projects that may not qualify for ARPA funds and should be considered through other funding sources or may not be feasible within the time frame. The current tier list is available on the city’s website at https:// bit.ly/3d8Ai93, as well as the results of community input, which rated overall infrastructure needs first, business community programs second and health and social services programs third.

During the Saturday public hearing, about 15 residents voiced their opinions to City Council on how they would prefer the city to spend ARPA funding. Council is set to receive staff’s spending plan for the first allotment of $29.7 million on July 6. This means there is a possibility that the current project and proposal tiers may change due to resident input, both to the online survey and from the public hearing.

Projects and proposals that were discussed by residents at the hearing mainly centered around rental assistance, childcare and tourism.

Currently, the city has identified rent assistance as a Tier 1 issue, according to the tier list published on June 3. Rental Resiliency is a program proposed by the city that includes hiring bilingual and temporary staff to “supplement capacity of Housing’s Landlord Division,” which would take place starting July 1, 2021 and extend through Dec. 31, 2024. This program would work to prevent evictions, mediate landlord/tenant issues and repayment plans, use other emergency response and recovery resources to help maintain long term housing stability and security, as well as provide supplemental support for DCHS housing initiatives.

Residents in favor of rent assistance cited that they had difficulties with state rental assistance.

“Trying to apply for rent assistance and navigate the system [was] a full-time job [on its own],” Vladimir Ventura, a resident, said.

Another resident, Teofila Gomez, mentioned that rent assistance should prioritize Hispanic and Black communities, as they were disproportionately affected by the pandemic and may struggle through the process due to language or technology barriers, she added.

“Affordable housing is a health equity issue, so it should be a high priority for [the city] to address,” Gomez said.

Elizabeth Wang, community development director at non-profit Casa Chirilagua, also said that it is difficult for residents to apply for rental relief. She said that ARPA funds should go towards not only rental assistance but also training for the board and staff at Casa Chirilagua.

“We are not experts in the state program, and it can be overwhelming [for staff],” Wang said.

Besides rental assistance, many people within the childcare sector of Alexandria attended the hearing to voice their concern regarding the lack of funds for childcare providers.

Glen Hopkins, representing Hopkins House, which is a non-profit child education center, said that Hopkins House has had a difficult time hiring staff.

“We lost 10% of [our current staff] from [concerns] about COVID,” Hopkins said.

Childcare providers are underpaid, and essentially put themselves and their families at risk during the past 15 months of the pandemic, while barley making a livable wage, according to Hopkins.

Members of another prominent Alexandrian industry, Old Town tourism and arts, voiced their opinions to move various tourism and arts related projects up the tier list. Members of several sectors, including theater, hospitality, local businesses and arts organizations, spoke at the hearing. All agreed that tourism should be a 2021 front funded issue, not placed on the back burner for 2022.

“We should be investing in tourism marketing this July, not July next year,” Jason Longfellow, of the Alexandria Arts Alliance, said.

Information collected via the public hearing and other constituent feedback will be evaluated and presented at the July 6 legislative meeting, when council will receive the spending plan for the first allotment of funds. This will include primarily Tier 1 and 2 projects and programs. In May 2022, Alexandria will receive the second allotment of funds to complete Tier 3 and 4 proposals and projects.

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