Council Delays Action On ARPA Funds
City has $193 million in the bank. But how to spend it still being debated.
Milwaukee has $193 million in the bank courtesy of the federal American Rescue Plan Act. But the question remains what to spend it on?
After more than two hours of debate, the Common Council now at least has an answer for how it will evaluate proposals.
Tens of millions will go towards addressing the direct effects of the pandemic: replacing lost revenue and funding the Milwaukee Health Department‘s COVID-19 response.
But where the rest goes remains to be seen.
Mayor Tom Barrett introduced a $93 million “summer plan” in July that he said was designed to quickly address city needs, including reckless driving, early childhood education, housing and workforce development.
But the Common Council paused that plan, and ideas floated by its own members, in July. Then it went on its August recess.
During its Wednesday meeting, the council adopted a new timeline that could have all $193 million allocated by the time it approves the 2022 budget in early November.
A special meeting of the Finance & Personnel Committee is scheduled for Thursday, September 2 to review a small part of Barrett’s proposal.
“It is my intention that there would not be a vote on the entirety of the package, but there would be separate action on items,” said committee chair Alderman Michael Murphy. He said some of the items now have “a sense of urgency” to them.
The council could approve those specific allocations as early as September 21. That’s the same day Barrett is expected to introduce his 2022 budget proposal.
Other Barrett ARPA proposals would need to be introduced by a council member as part of the process the legislative body set for itself.
Council member proposals, which need to be submitted by 5:00 p.m. on October 1, would go through an approval process similar to budget amendments. They would be published by October 12.
A special finance committee meeting would be called to address the proposals. That meeting could then fall during the same period when the committee is spending day after day listening to budget briefings from city departments and vetting budget amendments. Or the council could delay again, and push that special meeting out until after the budget’s early November adoption.
The revised timeline for the ARPA framework was introduced by Ald. Scott Spiker.
Common Council President Cavalier Johnson and Murphy had originally introduced a proposal that would have allowed all of the funding to be allocated on September 21, in advance of the budget deliberations.
Murphy and Johnson agreed to Spiker’s slower timeline.
“I think it shows that the Common Council understands the importance that we do this right,” said Murphy.
Spiker, in a broad amendment, also inserted a requirement that any proposal not submitted to the finance committee in time must receive 10 (not 8) votes for adoption by the full council.
He fought against a proposal to expand the scope of housing-related items that could be considered urgent.
“I have a feeling once we open Pandora’s Box more than a crack a lot more is going to come out of it,” said Spiker.
The council adopted the new framework on a unanimous vote, though the duration of the debate indicates it was far from an easy decision. Many members talked about wanting more community input or different adjustments to the process. Coggs and Ald. Robert Bauman voted against Spiker’s amendment, but for the entire process.
Barrett could veto any of the council spending measures, with 10 votes required to override a veto.
Lurking in the background of the debate is the reality that Barrett could be confirmed as Ambassador to Luxembourg at any point in the coming months, elevating Johnson to acting mayor and triggering a mayoral race that could involve several of the 15 council members. Johnson would lose his council vote while serving as acting mayor, further complicating any actions.
There is one spending allocation that was previously approved in June, lowering the available funding from $197 million to $193 million. The council approved Barrett’s proposal to allocate $3.8 million to the “Earn and Learn” program, a summer program targeted at hiring high school students.
The other pending council ARPA allocations, including Bauman’s $150 million plan to rehab city-owned homes, Ald. Jose G. Perez $98 million proposal to substantially expand the city’s lead abatement program and Ald. Chantia Lewis‘ proposals to establish the framework for a universal basic income program ($400,000) and fund the Office of Veterans’ Affairs ($200,000) will now be forwarded to the finance committee.
“Are there any announcements?” asked Johnson after the council finished its scheduled business.
“Yes, I would like to announce for the finance committee in the month of October please bring a cot down to City Hall,” said Murphy.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this article said any item voted down by the finance committee would need 10 votes. The only items that need 10 votes are those that never go to the finance committee.
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Read more about American Rescue Plan Act here