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City commission emphasizes “language access” and “housing stabilization” in allocating American Rescue Plan funds

Interim Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Zeriah Folston

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The October 19 Gainesville City Commission Special Meeting was held to decide on allocations for American Rescue Plan (ARP) federal funds. The City has $32.4 million in ARP funds plus $1.9 million in Housing and Urban Development funds to allocate, for a total of $34.3 million.

Mayor Lauren Poe led off by thanking President Biden and Congress “for taking the much-needed and bold action to distribute this money to cities and counties across the country… This was a huge effort by both the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors to get direct distribution of money to cities and counties… The purpose… of the American Rescue Plan Act was to help cities and counties–and states–to address the challenges that our neighbors faced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Poe explained that the money falls into four major buckets with 70 sub-categories to determine the allowable uses. He said the City has gone through a “pretty extensive process, first by soliciting input from the city commissioners and myself. We went through a pretty extensive public participation process as well, more so than any other local governments in the area.”

Poe said the priorities that emerged were housing, housing stabilization, homelessness prevention, helping families with energy efficiency and utilities assistance, broadband, gun violence, the east side medical clinic, the east side grocery store, and the east side transfer station/mobility hub. The City will also set aside some funds for nonprofits through a grant process.

This chart shows the recommendation for the ARP funds from the charter officers; amounts in yellow were previously authorized.

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“So whether it’s doing outreach for utility assistance or housing stabilization, or, you know, medical assistance, gun violence prevention, that we make sure we’re putting in front of that the ability for our non-native English speakers, who comprise significant populations of our neighborhoods, to access those programs and fully participate.” – Mayor Lauren Poe

Introducing a theme that continued throughout the meeting, Poe added, “One thing I’m going to ask the commission to consider – regardless of the categories or amounts of funding that we ultimately approve today, is that we direct staff to include language inclusion with all of these projects. So whether it’s doing outreach for utility assistance or housing stabilization, or, you know, medical assistance, gun violence prevention, that we make sure we’re putting in front of that the ability for our non-native English speakers, who comprise significant populations of our neighborhoods, to access those programs and fully participate.”

Zeriah Folston, the Interim Director for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said he had two requests for the commission: “I  have nonprofits – NGOs, if you will – that are appreciative that this process is being afforded to them that is not being afforded in other municipalities.” He asked that they determine the funding allocation for the nonprofit community and have a “discussion around process” for evaluating applications from nonprofits.

“The most valuable thing that President Biden gave us wasn’t the money… The most valuable thing he gave us was time to make these decisions. We don’t have to rush into them.” – Commissioner David Arreola

Commissioner David Arreola advocated for taking more time to decide how to allocate the funds: “It’s really early to say ‘Let’s approve this.’” He argued for “a lot more special meetings like this for the commission to discuss our different priorities” and thought that about a quarter of the funds should go to nonprofits, or about $8 million. “The most valuable thing that President Biden gave us wasn’t the money… The most valuable thing he gave us was time to make these decisions. We don’t have to rush into them. We don’t have to spend them immediately. We’ve got three years to really think about how we want this money to get spent. So it’s only been a handful of months. And so I think that we really need to take a breath and just really, really think through these decisions… I will not be in support of any motion to support the ledger in front of us.”

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker wondered why one of her submitted projects “that did get put through the equity tool and received a rating of ‘good’ the first time out of the gate, that simply does not appear on the matrix.” She also said that broadband is “a very heavy lift” and asked for a workshop with the incoming Interim City Manager because she will be the one to administer the programs.

“I don’t want people to wait forever for things we already know we’re going to do.” – Commissioner Harvey Ward

Commissioner Harvey Ward said the commission has already expressed “tremendous agreement” on things like home efficiency upgrades. He said he would like to get agreement on the amount they want to budget to nonprofits: “I don’t want people to wait forever for things we already know we’re going to do.” He said he would favor $6 million for nonprofits, split between $2 million for new ideas and $4 million for organizations the City has worked with in the past, “folks we know have reporting capabilities and the ability to move forward quickly with serving needs.”

Commissioner Reina Saco said, “If there are certain projects or services that we all agree with, we don’t even have to talk about it; we all know it’s the right thing to do with a certain amount of funds. We shouldn’t delay those or tie it up with red tape.” She said that, like Duncan-Walker, she knew of projects that were rated “good” in the equity tool but were not on the list they were considering. She also saw things on the list that the commission had never discussed. “And that’s not to say that they’re not good. It’s just that we may not know what… actually goes into the breakdown of some of those. Yesterday, the gun violence initiatives… I don’t know what that initiative and that money addresses.”

City Manager Lee Feldman responded that gun violence is an example of a program the charter officers would “come back and give you more definition on.” He said the money could go to overtime dollars, domestic violence victim advocacy, and “a number of initiatives that the Chief wants to move forward on that would not necessarily be continuing costs.” Feldman also said the proposed energy efficiency line item would involve “investments of $30,000 to $50,000 per home” with a target of between 100 and 150 homes, for a total of $6 million.

Saco also said she would “rather that we give a certain deference to more established projects,” particularly if a nonprofit is asking for more than $50,000. “I don’t think this is the pot of money to try to experiment with newly-created nonprofits or a nonprofit doing something that’s a completely new addition to their mission. I just worry about their ability to pull it off in the time frame that we have.”

“This money does absolutely no good in our bank account. I reject the idea that we slow-walk this.” – Mayor Poe

Poe said, “This money does absolutely no good in our bank account. I reject the idea that we slow-walk this… People have been suffering for almost 2 years now… The folks that were hit the hardest and are still continuing to struggle, they need our help, and they need it now. I’m frustrated that it’s taken us this long… If there are elements that we don’t agree on, then we can set aside that amount of funding… I really hope that by the end of this meeting, we can give some clear direction to staff… so we can start helping people.”

Ward said, “Broadband–$9.6 million is a lot of money when we don’t have a plan yet… we’re not going to make someone’s lives better tomorrow with that money…” He pointed out that the east side projects could be paid out of CRA funds, “but if we do that, that’s a full year of CRA funding… I don’t think I want to do that… I want those things to happen, but I would rather do them with money that President Biden brought to us.”

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos wanted to discuss broadband: “That will have a tremendous impact. That funding right there will probably help 10,000 homes. That’s a huge number of people. More than any other of the funding we have up there, the number of people it would affect… It would be $500 per year per family for savings. That’s a huge amount of money.” He said there is already a plan, and this money would help fund the majority of the Tier One plan, which mainly focuses on running fiber to low-income areas in east Gainesville.

Arreola made a motion to fund utility debt forgiveness at $250k, housing stabilization at $2.9 million ($1 million for eviction assistance + $1.9 million instead of the proposed $6 million for energy efficiency), and $7 million for nonprofits. He added a request to schedule another special meeting to further discuss allocation of ARP funds and a joint meeting with other boards like the school board and the county commission. Ward seconded the motion. Feldman said that the $250k was previously approved as a budget amendment, but only $25k is needed at this point, so $225,000 of that can be reallocated. He also said all of the money can be reallocated through December of 2024, so their decisions don’t need to be final.

Saco said she would not be supporting the motion: “Pulling $7 million out without figuring out how it affects the rest – I just can’t do that.” She asked Arreola to explain how he came up with the $7 million number, and he replied, “Harvey said 6, I said 8.”

“That doesn’t even take into account the near-$1 million it will take to change all the language signs across the board.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

Saco said she didn’t feel comfortable with anything higher than $4 million because anything more would cut into other things they want to do. “That doesn’t even take into account the near-$1 million it will take to change all the language signs across the board.”

Poe said staff had determined that language access was not an allowable expenditure under Treasury guidelines as a separate entity, so it would have to be embedded in the administration of each project. 

Hayes-Santos said he also wouldn’t support the motion because he wanted to put the money into buckets before “chipping away” at it. 

“We’ve got to make decisions that get this money working for our neighbors… I want to see us be a little more decisive today.” – Poe

Poe said he wouldn’t support the motion: “We’ve got to make decisions that get this money working for our neighbors… I want to see us be a little more decisive today.”

Arreola amended the motion to add language to authorize staff to return with implementation plans for the items in the motion—nonprofit assistance, utility assistance, housing stabilization. 

Poe responded, referring to the full list of projects, “But none of the rest of these?”

Arreola said, “I don’t agree with that list. I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t agree with it.”

After several people argued for more money for translation services during public comment, Poe said he would ask staff to take another look at funding for language access, particularly proposals from other cities that planned to use ARP funds in that way. But he said that “embedding it into the requirements for [each project]… that to me is non-negotiable.”

There is nothing on this list that I don’t think is important and a priority. If anybody thinks anything is not important or a priority, I think they should say so and see if we want to knock it out.” – Poe

Poe also said he supported funding for healthcare Navigators, to “get as many people signed up in the Marketplace as possible… I will tell you there is nothing on this list that I do not think is important and adds significant value to our community. So I want us to direct our staff to start doing the work to show us, what does a gun violence reduction initiative look like? What is that and how are those dollars being spent? What does the Community Land Trust look like with more access to housing? You know, what does the vaccine incentive program look like?… There is nothing on this list that I don’t think is important and a priority. If anybody thinks anything is not important or a priority, I think they should say so and see if we want to knock it out.”

Healthcare expansion in east Gainesville, beyond an urgent care clinic, needs to be added to this list.” – Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker

Duncan-Walker said one of her top priorities is a medical plaza, and that was omitted from the list: “I can support the motion that is currently on the floor, but that has to be on this list…Healthcare expansion in east Gainesville, beyond an urgent care clinic, needs to be added to this list.”

Feldman said the item was a $15 million medical campus (about 50% of the ARP funds), and the proposal did not discuss where the funds would come from to operate it or who the specific partners would be. 

Duncan-Walker said she would have appreciated getting that feedback instead of having her project excluded from the list. Feldman responded that “this process was taken away from us. It was housed in another charter’s office, and I was only one of six participants in… creating this list, so the decision wasn’t mine.” Duncan-Walker said, “I thank you for sharing that… that’s not what I was told… I would like it included back on the list. I wonder if anybody will modify a motion to include this… This is a very sore spot for me.”

Arreola said he didn’t want to add anything to the list because that’s the purpose of the special meeting: “The larger point is that is not the only project that wasn’t included on this list… I don’t want to cherry-pick right now.”

Arreola did, however, agree to add a request for the Office of Equity and Inclusion to develop an application for nonprofits, engage with the nonprofits, and bring the applications back to the commission. 

The motion passed 4-2, with Hayes-Santos and Saco in dissent. In spite of Poe’s statement that he would vote against it, he voted for it. 

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