Cleveland City Council Develops Plan to Intensify Discussions on ARPA Stimulus Funding

Gennifer Harding-Gosnell

On Monday, October 4, Cleveland City Council held a special meeting which was called for by 12 of Cleveland’s 17 Council members to discuss creating a process that will determine what to do with the over $250 million initial the city will receive in stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). A specially created work group made up of council committee chairs will have their recommendations finalized and sent to the full Council for decision-making by November 1.

City of Cleveland’s Interim Finance Director Jim Gentile reviewed the Administration’s spending priorities with Council: $26.3 million, explained by Gentile as “primarily [for the purchase of] emergency vehicles, equipment, and security cameras;” $15 million for “strategic demo” [demolition of vacant properties in neighborhoods that meet ARPA criteria]; $191,000 for professional services to ensure compliance with ARPA guidelines; and $8.3 million for community and economic development programs such as home repairs and down payment assistance. 

The Administration annouces it’s ARPA spending plan a week ago with less than an hour’s notice to both the public and City Council, creating the frustration which led 12 council members to call the special meeting. 

City Council President and Ward 13 Council member Kevin Kelley asked Gentile to have a staff member give council members a copy of the Administration’s breakdown of all the different sub-categories within their broader plans. 

Ward 8 Council member Mike Polensek expressed his desire for the City to begin dealing with “low-hanging fruit,” or items he feels the Administration could start implementing immediately, referring to the need for demolition of vacant properties.

“This is an opportunity for us to do things that we’re never going to have the ability to do again,” said Polensek. “The residents want to see those funds in the street. They want to see things happening, so again… Let’s try to identify the low hanging fruit that we can address now, and then we know there’s other things that are going to take time to implement.”

Ward 1 Council member Joe Jones shared his concerns about the lack of information he’s received from the Administration about their plans, referring to another instance where “we [the Council] did not get that assessment, we had to request for it [from the Administration] at the table during the time that the presentation was being made.”

Jones made a motion for Council to hold a summit, saying the purpose of today’s meeting is “to present a plan for Council to engage in a transparent process that will establish a clear understanding of how ARPA funding can be used, to create a comprehensive plan of Council priorities, and finally, reconcile Council’s priorities with the mayor’s proposal.”

Jones’ motion was seconded by Ward 3 Council member Kerry McCormack who stated, “That motion to have a summit or some series of meetings… is the reason we’re here today, because there’s a feeling amongst the body that we have not had an independent conversation about American Rescue Plan Act dollars.”

McCormack added that he didn’t understand why the Administration was present at today’s meeting stating, “the point of this meeting is to establish a roadmap going forward for council to establish independent priorities.”

Ward 7 Council member Basheer Jones said the conversations that council members are now having “should have happened months ago” and that residents in his ward are in need of services “not tomorrow, not next week, not ‘we do 10 more meetings,’ No, we got people in these situations right now.” 

“That’s what we’ve been talking about for years here at Council,” he said, “But at some point now, the rubber meets the road, let’s get these resources out to the people that need it.”  

The motion for Council to hold working groups and a series of meetings to hammer out ARPA details was approved by all members of council unanimously.

Ward 6 Council member Blaine Griffin, who took over as chair following Kelley’s departure from the meeting, explained his recommendation following McCormack’s suggested guidelines. He proposed the creation of a working group made up of the chairs of Council’s respective committees. Topics for allotments would be assigned to committees who would put forth recommendations to the working group. The working group would then bring the final recommendations to the full Council to be discussed and voted on. 

As meeting chair, Griffin could not make the motion himself, this was followed through by McCormack, and the motion was seconded by Ward 14 Council member Jasmine Santana. 

Basheer Jones did not agree with the proposed framework, saying he did not feel the committee process was necessary and suggested a one-day summit instead. He also wanted to impose a timeline. 

Ward 17 Council member Charles Slife suggested a three-week timeline for the series of meetings saying, “I understand it’s not as urgent as we may like, but I believe there’s a lot of outstanding questions… and I think that what we need is maybe a couple days a week for us to spend time amassing questions to counsel staff that they can then go take to the administration, so when we do sit down on these sessions, we have definitive information that we’ve requested from the administration that allows us to analyze our goals better.” 

Several council members asked for various bits of information from the Jackson Administration during the meeting, including compliance guidelines, results of resident surveys and the City’s current cash balance.

McCormack said he would be “happy” to amend his motion to include a deadline of November 1 for the working group to have its final recommendations presented to the whole Council. All Council members approved the amended motion except Basheer Jones. 

Council members continued to reiterate the need for communication with city administration officials as Polensek told Gentile directly, “You folks need to start working, like now, putting together data for us.” 

“If we don’t have the information from the administration,” he said, “there’s gonna be a lot of frustration at the table. They need to be a partner in this process, I can’t stress that enough.”

Griffin closed the meeting after explaining the issues he believes were most significantly exacerbated by the pandemic, food security and the digital divide. He also reiterated the need for Council and the City’s Administration to work together for the betterment of all city residents.