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Friday, June 5, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Council boosts direct economic aid in spending plan for federal Covid-19 money

The city will move more of its federal aid for Covid-19 relief toward direct assistance for residents, with a total of $70 million now dedicated to rental relief, food aid and direct payments to individuals.

City Council approved a resolution Thursday giving staff a broad outline for spending in three main categories – public health, emergency response and economic recovery – as well as specific line items within each category, with the ability to change smaller allocations as needs arise.

The unanimous vote provides a framework for how to spend the $271.6 million available to the city through a combination of federal funding sources, the largest being the roughly $170 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Going forward, staff will work on further allocating the $105.5 million in emergency response funding, $62.9 million for public health needs and $103.2 million for economic support.

An amendment from Council Member Greg Casar moved money from several of the economic recovery initiatives to provide more for direct assistance, including more than $18 million in additional rent assistance and another $12 million for the RISE Fund to give cash payments to vulnerable residents.

That adjustment was largely supported by Council through the Tuesday work session and on Thursday, though there was a lot of discussion about how specific the framework needs to be at this point. Some members, including Ann Kitchen, pushed for hard minimums in certain categories, which would require staff to get further guidance before making significant adjustments to line items.

Council Member Kathie Tovo told City Manager Spencer Cronk that she wants staff to respond quickly as conditions related to the pandemic evolve.

“We would like to be flexible and nimble, and allow you to be flexible and nimble, to respond to individual needs that could come to be within the framework we’ve provided,” she said. “This is the money that we have, so if nothing in here can go lower, then I don’t think that allows that flexibility without further conversations with Council.”

Cronk said the amendments are clear, but there may need to be judgment calls made on certain changes.

“It is helpful knowing the entire dais is encouraging us to continue to think creatively and making sure we have that flexibility in place. Having specific conversations is helpful, and with the amendments this direction is perfectly fine,” he said.

“If there are swings in different areas … the order of magnitude is a little hard because each bucket is different. There would certainly be an update to Council if there was an order of magnitude that would necessitate coming back for further direction.”

Economic recovery initiatives adjusted as a result of the Casar amendment include new funding to help the city’s creative community and commercial lease assistance.

Council Member Alison Alter said those areas and others will require more attention through the summer months as Council begins work on the next city budget.

“This is not necessarily traditional economic recovery approaches but I think we need to be thinking about making those kinds of pivots, should we identify additional funding or if additional funding comes down,” she said. “That is the part of the spending framework that is weakest, and as we’re thinking about putting together our budget we’re going to have to not only cut but think about whether existing programs are meeting our needs.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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