Algire says ‘business as usual’ is not good enough

Published 3:09 pm Thursday, June 17, 2021

By Jen Algire
President & CEO, The Greater Clark Foundation

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) is delivering $350 billion for eligible state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to help address the COVID-19 emergency and bring back jobs. Local and tribal governments across our nation have been gifted a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make meaningful investments in systems and structures that often determine the life course of the most vulnerable citizens in our communities. For many localities, including our own, ARPA funds represent the largest fiscal stimulus in decades. Locally, Winchester and Clark County will receive more than $10 million in ARPA funds with roughly 70 percent going to the county and 30 percent to the city. Input and robust dialogue from diverse sectors of this community should occur prior to decisions about utilizing the funds.

Eligible uses for these funds fall into four categories:
• Support urgent COVID-19 response efforts to continue to decrease spread of the virus and bring the pandemic under control.
• Replace lost revenue for eligible state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to strengthen support for vital public services and help retain jobs.
•Support immediate economic stabilization for households and businesses.
• Address systemic public health and economic challenges that have contributed to the pandemic’s unequal impact on vulnerable citizens.

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ARPA funds differ from Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) funding released by the federal government early in the pandemic. CARES was designed as a stopgap during the height of the COVID-19 induced economic crisis, while ARPA funds look towards helping local environments recover and thrive post-pandemic. ARPA allocations are two to three times larger than CARES allocations and provide local governments with critically important time to plan how to use the funds. Funds are not required to be allocated until 2024. Spending is not required until 2026. This timeline is intentional. The federal government wants local communities to invest ARPA funds thoughtfully and deliberately, not simply to absorb them into their routine annual budgets, because nothing about this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and recovery is routine. According to Matt Fulton, vice president of national engagement at Polco, a national company that facilitates citizen involvement, meaningfully engaging residents in recovery will help local governments allocate ARPA expenditures in the best ways possible. “ARPA funding is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for communities to think strategically about how to recover from the pandemic and move the community forward,” he said. “It becomes incumbent to use those resources wisely. To spend this money in the best way possible, you need to understand the impacts COVID has had on the residents. Only by understanding this current reality can you best plan your way through COVID recovery.”

Across the country, many local governments are using citizen feedback to guide local implementation of federal relief spending. Earlier this week, in a letter to local officials, The Greater Clark Foundation (GCF) suggested that city and county leaders engage in an intentional process for citizen input regarding use of ARPA funds. ARPA funds present a unique opportunity to engage the public for purposes other than “business as usual.” Economic recovery requires us to think differently and encourage diverse kinds of input. Public input is essential to this process.

For people typically not involved in city or county budgeting – an exercise many municipal leaders take for granted – the process can feel mysterious, rather than welcoming and inclusive. That is why GCF is respectfully requesting a different means of citizen engagement – one in which city and county leaders meet constituents where they are and make space for them to participate, learn more, and encourage them to become citizen leaders. This will be a significant undertaking, requiring intentionality and time. It will be hard work. That’s why GCF also offered to support the city and county in their efforts to involve citizens in ARPA funding decisions. Citizen engagement and civic participation is an endeavor that GCF is committed to fostering in our community. GCF can help support a meaningful and equitable civic engagement process – one that makes residents feel their input truly matters (because it does matter).

As Brad Whitehead and Joseph Parilla of Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program wrote recently, “The decisions made in the coming weeks will determine whether cities merely enjoy a brief stimulus or seed a new trajectory of inclusive economic growth. In 10 years, we may look back at this time and ask: Which places merely spent their money, and which places invested it?”

It is GCF’S aspiration that Winchester and Clark County choose to invest.
Jen Algire is the President & CEO of The Greater Clark Foundation