Should Millions in Federal Aid Be Split Up By Aldermanic District?
Council members float idea that would allocate some of the money by district instead of citywide.
For more than two months, Mayor Tom Barrett and Common Council members have been trying to figure out what to do with the approximately $394 million in federal funding the city will receive from the federal $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.
A series of public hearings to solicit public input have already been held, and more are planned. A new online survey is also available.
At least six council members are advancing a proposal that would split a portion of the money up by aldermanic district. The resolution calls for each of the 15 districts to receive at least a $1 million allocation.
“We as a Council have clearly committed to engaging the public and looking through a lens of equity and inclusion for these dollars,” said council members Milele A. Coggs, Nikiya Dodd, Khalif Rainey, Chantia Lewis, Jose G. Perez and Russell W. Stamper, II via a joint statement released Thursday afternoon.
The proposal is based on the council’s aspirational goal of participatory budgeting. The city took its first significant step towards implementing such a framework last year, soliciting direct citizen input on how the city’s $1.6 billion budget should be spent. But the actual budget, given the city’s fiscal constraints, effectively mirrored prior years.
“Now with the ARPA funds, we see a real opportunity for us to not only hear the priorities of residents, but to put resources behind some of the very things they want,” said the members in the joint release. “Aldermanic districts across the city of Milwaukee face varying challenges, and this process would allow each to begin to address their specific needs. It would also empower residents to make decisions regarding how to best meet the needs of their neighborhoods and community within the federal guidelines of usage of the ARPA funds.”
The city has four years to spend the ARPA dollars. It now has the first half of the money and federal guidance on what the money can be spent on. It can’t be used to reduce taxes, pay the city’s pension liability or pay down debt. It can be used to supplement lost revenue, compared to 2019, meaning it could replace money lost from the suspension of parking violations and other permitting fees. That amount is expected to exceed $40 million.
One idea discussed by the Public Works Committee repeatedly is already out. Council members Robert Bauman, Mark Borkowski and Stamper have discussed the potential of spending up to $100 million to replace all of the city’s aging street lights and associated circuitry with the hope of reducing energy and maintenance costs. Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske informed them Thursday morning that the city has learned that such a spending allocation would have to wait for a potential federal infrastructure bill.
The city’s existing program to address the streetlighting issues, the newly-instituted streetlighting fee, also cannot be suspended and backfilled with revenue from ARPA. Barrett and nine council members originally backed that idea.
A resolution is pending before the Common Council to direct the Department of Administration to split up a portion of the money.
The mayor announced Monday that $3.8 million would go towards summer employment opportunities for young city residents, expanding the existing Earn and Learn program.
As part of a long-standing practice, the City of Chicago allocates approximately $1.3 million to each of its 50 aldermanic districts annually for discretionary projects selected by the local council member. The practice has been criticized by the Chicago Tribune editorial board and the city’s Inspector General.