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Council Planning Public Hearings On How City Should Spend $290M Stimulus

city hall
Bill Rinehart
Cincinnati City Hall

Cincinnati residents will soon have a chance to weigh in on how the city should spend $290 million in federal stimulus money. A public hearing is planned for April 12 at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting.

Samantha Brandenburg in the City Solicitor's office says that may be before the U.S. Treasury Department releases guidance on how the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money can be spent.

"The administration and the law department will work closely together once that guidance is released to determine the eligibility of the various funding proposals," Brandenburg said at the Budget and Finance Committee meeting Monday.

The guidance may also impact the city manager's detailed spending plan, which Mayor John Cranley has been promoting over the past week. It sets aside $2.8 million for hazard pay.

"That would be subject to negotiations with the various labor organizations, but it would be to support those workers who are not able to work remotely during the pandemic," said Interim Budget Director Andrew Dudas.

Council has final approval of the spending plan.

Billy Weber, the city manager's chief of staff, initially encouraged council members to delay seeking public feedback.  

"Our recommendation is to wait until initial guidance is released to begin having the larger public hearing process on this to allow the law department to be able to advise council with certainty on eligible uses at that time," Weber said Monday.

Weber also emphasized the need to have details figured out quickly, in the hopes of having plans finalized before the first payment, which is expected by May 11.

"So we are recommending beginning this process of engagement and appropriation in earnest right now so it can be completed prior to engaging in the full fiscal year budgeting process," Weber said.

The administration had been anticipating a deficit of nearly $19 million going into the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Assistant City Manager Chris Bigham says without the latest stimulus, he expected 8% cuts to all general fund departments.

"That would have had staff reductions, having to lay folks off, those sorts of things, possibly," Bigham said. "And with these dollars, I think — at least over the next couple of years — we have averted that."

Council Member Chris Seelbach says the mayor and administration released their recommendations prematurely and without input from the public or from council.

"I understand the need to allocate the money that's going to help us close our budget deficit by June 30. But the overall picture of the rest of the money, I think we need to hit the brakes and actually engage the people we represent," Seelbach said. "We need to get it right."

City Budget In The Works

Monday's committee meeting also served as the first public hearing for the fiscal year 2022 budget. Chair David Mann's policy motion includes prioritizing the emergency communications center and public services.

Just one resident spoke during the public hearing. Kevin Shaw says public safety is often the top priority at City Hall, but he says transportation and engineering should be considered public safety issues.

"What are the long term maintenance and environmental costs of not improving pedestrian and cyclist safety?" Shaw said. "Shouldn't we be considering right-sizing roadways and bridges as they're repaved and reconstructed as well? If we aren't building and promoting efficient alternatives to the single-occupant car, can we effectively be a pro-growth city as we all want?"

The administration will draft a budget and send it to the mayor in May. Cranley will send council his adjusted version of the budget soon after, and council will hold public hearings before voting on a final version before the end of June.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.