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With self-imposed deadline approaching, Council rushes to divide stimulus funds

Wednesday, June 9, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City Council plans to pass a spending framework for the remaining $143.6 million in American Rescue Plan funds, but the allocations for a variety of services and programs are still in flux as their Thursday meeting approaches. 

Because of its upcoming summer break, Council must decide how to spend the funds or wait almost two months until the next meeting on July 29. 

Most Council members support moving ahead, pointing to urgent uses such as rental assistance that need funding now, but some said at Monday’s special called meeting that they felt rushed and indicated that they may vote against the framework for lack of details. 

The funds will not be spent immediately. Council’s framework will simply give city staffers the direction on how to spend the funds, much of which will have to come back to Council in the form of contracts or other spending items.

Council has two competing frameworks to reference ahead of the meeting. Staffers proposed a spending framework based on Council’s previous direction while Mayor Steve Adler proposed a separate spending framework, with different amounts envisioned for some spending categories. Funding for homelessness will take up the majority of the spending in both frameworks.

There are two main differences between the frameworks: Adler nixed $10 million in historic preservation funding that staff had included and also proposed spending reserve funds, which staffers did not. Council will wrestle with both of these alternatives on Thursday, with some members in favor of historic preservation and using reserve funds, and others opposed.

The amount of funds for food insecurity may also change. Staffers proposed spending $3 million of ARP funds on food insecurity, which includes developing an Austin/Travis County food system plan, extending emergency food access programs and funding co-ops and nonprofit grocery stores. But some argued that the amount is too little.  

“I really appreciate the staff incorporating … several of the food access elements,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said. “But I believe that number to be low.”

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who also supported increased funds for food insecurity, linked the initiative to the city’s disaster preparedness goals. “We must learn from the hardships endured during the Covid-19 pandemic and Winter Storm Uri to ensure the systemic food access inequities plaguing our communities are not further exacerbated during future emergencies,” Fuentes wrote on the City Council Message Board

Another disaster preparedness initiative, Resilience Hubs, could see money too, even though it is not included in either spending plan. While staffers have not yet estimated the cost of setting up a Resilience Hub pilot program, Tovo argued that Council should still fund such a program with ARPA. “This is, I believe, our best opportunity to really make those investments in some of the resilience work that we know we need,” Tovo said, estimating the program to cost at least $1 million.

Adler noted that because of the limited funds available, trade-offs are going to be required. “One of the hardest things to do as a Council is choose between priorities,” he said.

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