Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Council Adopts $179 Million Rescue Plan Package

Compromise plan includes money for pension reserve, housing, lead abatement and child care providers.

By - Oct 21st, 2021 06:13 pm
Jericho / CC BY (

Jericho / CC BY (

There is a final plan for how to spend $179 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding. But not everyone is happy and multiple members of the Milwaukee Common Council feel like a months-long, council-initiated process was a waste of time.

“I wanted to thank the mayor [Tom Barrett]. I think I can say unequivocally that he’s probably the most successful politician in our generation whether you like it or not, and part of that is being able to move things forward,” said Alderman Ashanti Hamilton on Thursday afternoon.

Barrett’s latest win, according to Hamilton, was effectively getting everything he wanted from the ARPA funding. Barrett proposed an initial ARPA plan and then subsequent proposals were embedded in his 2022 budget proposal. But the council asserted control of the funding and launched a new process to approve the spending, only to adopt a series of items similar to what Barrett originally proposed.

“It changed none of it,” said Hamilton. “We didn’t make any major changes to it.”

“I know what we did do is take a whole lot of time,” said the alderman, who considered running against Barrett in 2020. “We riled up community members to create proposals.”

“None of those were considered,” said Hamilton of the proposals. “Hell, even council members couldn’t have their own amendments heard by the committee.”

Last week the Finance & Personnel Committee turned what was expected to be a marathon meeting into a four-hour affair by adopting an omnibus proposal, introduced by Committee Chair Ald. Michael Murphy and Council President Cavalier Johnson, that spent all but a few million dollars. What began as 82 proposals totaling more than $1.4 billion was whittled down to just four items without debating the majority of the items.

The full council spent less than an hour on the package Thursday during a special meeting.

“I agree with most of the sentiments of Alderman Hamilton,” said Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs. “I never liked the processes we were discussing or things that we wanted to do largely because I thought we would end up right where we are today.”

“I would just like to on the record to say that the process was very undemocratic,” said Ald. Khalif Rainey.

He specifically accused Council President Johnson of favoring only those who voted for him as council president, a divisive 8-7 vote that left Hamilton, Coggs, Rainey, Chantia Lewis, Nikiya Dodd, Mark Borkowski and Russell W. Stamper, II on the losing side.

“It is truly disheartening to see that we are here again,” said Lewis.

Stamper said when the ARPA process started the council was united for the first time since selecting its president in May 2020. “Let’s take this opportunity to learn,” he said of the impending need to redo the process when the other half of $394.2 million in funding arrives in the coming years.

But even with the complaints, a supermajority of council members voted for the bulk of the proposal on a 12-3 vote. Hamilton, Rainey and Lewis were the only members to object.

Outside of the vote which covered much of the omnibus proposal, Coggs sought unsuccessfully to have a contribution to the Milwaukee Area Domestic Animal Control Commission (MADACC) struck and Hamilton unsuccessfully sought to defeat a $9 million allocation to advance the redevelopment of Westlawn Gardens.

Johnson, in an interview last week, said the process to get to this point wasn’t easy. “There were a lot of meetings, a lot of phone calls, a lot of late nights,” he told Urban Milwaukee.

Neither Johnson, nor the other council members backing the omnibus proposal gave floor speeches in favor of it Thursday. Nor did they debate those criticizing it.

So what did the council vote to spend money on?

An Accounting Trick

The biggest single item is an accounting trick designed to show the state a good faith effort is being made to address the city’s pension-induced fiscal cliff.

A total of $50.8 million of the Milwaukee Fire Department‘s 2022 budget would be replaced with ARPA funds. That would free up $36 million in tax levy revenue to be spent free of ARPA restrictions.

The council could then use a budget amendment, to be considered later this month, to contribute $30 million in newly-free revenue to the pension reserve fund.

The move is championed by Johnson, who as acting-mayor-in-waiting, is attempting to show fiscal prudence to the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature.

The contribution would create a large enough reserve to delay the city’s fiscal cliff by at least one year, from 2023 to 2024, should the city choose to exhaust the full reserve fund (approximately $82 million). If no action is taken at the state level to support the city (new revenue or pension changes), the cliff would trigger the need for the city to lay off 25% of its workforce.

The other $6.1 million of free tax levy dollars would go towards hiring new police officers.

Barrett proposed to use ARPA funding to hire and train 195 police officers in 2022 spread across three separate recruiting classes. But advocacy groups opposed that plan. But the intent, as explicitly stated in the policy, is to still hire those recruits using the remainder of the newly available tax levy dollars. A budget amendment will be required.

MPD, as proposed in Barrett’s budget, would still see a 25 officer reduction through attrition over the course of the year. The new officers would be retained in 2023 as existing officers retire or change employers.

The remaining $14.8 million in ARPA funds used for MFD, as Barrett previously proposed, would be used to fund six engine companies using the lost revenue provision, but would not generate levy savings.

Where The Rest of the Money Is Going

The council plan includes what is the city largest allocation to affordable housing in decades as well as a $26 million surge in funding to address lead poisoning, a $4.2 million grant to build a new Martin Luther King library branch, more than $6 million to support and train child care providers, $1 million to advance a modular house factory, $14.6 million to continue addressing pandemic-related health matters, $3 million to expand the Office of Violence Prevention’s 414 Life violence interrupter program to the South Side, a $10 million allocation to fix 13 of the city’s least reliable street light circuits and a number of smaller allocations.

It joins previously approved allocations totaling $18 million from what was a $197 million grant. Those funds are going towards addressing an ambulance shortage ($4.7 million), hiring attorneys for those being evicted ($1.8 million), combating reckless driving ($7.15 million) and the city’s Earn and Learn high school employment and training program ($3.8 million).

Details on the affordable housing, lead abatement and child care allocations can be found in our coverage of the committee’s actions.

“The Council’s approval of an allocation plan for the first round of American Rescue Plan funds is a step forward.  I will review the plan, and I anticipate signing the file in the coming days,” said Barrett in a statement after the council’s vote. “There is additional work ahead as we prepare for the 2022 ARPA funding cycle.  Collectively, we will evaluate additional funding recommendations and prioritize equitable, inclusive, effective, and appropriate proposals.”

“We are stronger as a body and as a community when we collaborate and work together to tackle the issues before us, and today’s ARPA allocation is a great example of that,” said Johnson in a statement. “While we still have much work before us, getting these resources into the community will provide a significant boost to accelerate our city’s recovery from the pandemic. As we resume talks next year on how to best allocate the second portion of ARPA dollars, I look forward to continued discussions with my colleagues, community leaders, resident, and advocacy groups. The needs of our city will always be evolving, and I promise to remain diligent in our efforts to support the community in the most efficient and impactful way possible.”

The council must also still adopt the city’s 2022 budget. The full council is scheduled to consider amendments to the budget on Nov. 5.

And the hardest part of all when it comes to ARPA, as acknowledged by multiple council members in recent months, is that city departments and contractors have to actually execute the plan. Multiple department heads have warned about capacity issues related to staffing.

The full amount must be encumbered by 2024 and spent by 2026.

A full copy of the adopted spending plan is available on Urban Milwaukee.

Categories: City Hall, Politics, Weekly

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