Iowa City Council hears two very different plans for how to spend federal pandemic relief funds

The Fund Excluded Workers Coalition gathers outside the Iowa City Council meeting. Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Both of the Iowa City Council’s two meetings on Tuesday had speakers addressing how the city should spend the $18.3 million in federal funds provided by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

During the council’s 4 p.m. work session, city manager Geoff Fruin presented a series of recommendations for what he called a “two-prong approach” intended to meet some of the immediate needs in the community and to identify strategic investment opportunities for the longer term. Then at the 6 p.m. formal session, every speaker during the public comment period pushed for the council to adopt the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition‘s plan for immediate payments to those who didn’t receive federal relief during the pandemic.

In the work session, Fruin outlined four areas of immediate needs for which city staff recommended ARPA funds be used.

The first suggested use of funds was one-time direct payments to adults who did not receive federal stimulus checks and/or unemployment benefits. Fruin estimated the number of eligible people in the hundreds, and said undocumented residents would be eligible for the payments. The size of any such payments would have to be determined by the council, but for planning purposes city staff used the figure of $2,000 per recipient, leading to an estimate of between $1 million to $1.5 million for the direct payment program.

Fruin also recommended using between $1 million and $2 million in ARPA funds for the city’s eviction prevention program. According to the city manager, Iowa City has already spent $1 million this year on eviction prevention efforts, but with the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the federal eviction moratorium in late August, the need for these services will continue and likely increase.

The third recommendation was dedicating $500,000 to $1.5 million to pay for housing repair for those in need but unable to afford structural repairs. In some cases, Fruin said, repair may not be enough, and residents would need to be relocated. City staff anticipate much of the repair/relocation spending to be focused on the Forest View Mobile Home Park. Fruin said a third party should be used to administer this program.

Another $500,000 to $1 million would be used as immediate support for local nonprofits in the plan outlined during the work session.

Total funding for the four areas of immediate need was estimated to be between $3 million and $6 million. Fruin said it would be important to create these relief programs in collaboration with the county government, as well as the other cities in Johnson County and area nonprofits. The estimate is an approximation, he explained, because it is expected that other county, state or federal programs will also address some these needs, affecting the final costs.

Fruin said he wanted to have these programs launched “by the end of 2021 or soon thereafter,” describing that as “an aggressive time frame when you’re dealing with federal funds.”

The second prong of the city staff’s recommendations for ARPA funds — strategic investment opportunities — would have a longer time frame. Fruin said it would likely take eight months to identify areas for investment and develop plans.

One priority, he stressed, will be creating an infrastructure to support BIPOC-owned businesses. “We heard a lot about the need to support underserved businesses, businesses that have had a hard time accessing capital, that have had a hard time accessing federal relief programs,” Fruin said.

He cited this summer’s Diversity Markets, organized by the South District Neighborhood Association as an example of the sort of support for underserved businesses the city would try to create.

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Fruin also recommended the city invest in social service needs, seed funding (money to help launch a business), affordable housing initiatives, mental health services, workforce development, climate resiliency and hazard assessment planning.

The cost for these strategic investments would be between $15-32 million, which may exceed Iowa City’s total ARPA funds. In that case, the city will need to determine who to prioritize for investments.

Since May, the city has solicited public input on what its priorities should be for spending ARPA funds. It has received nearly 1,900 responses and 680 comments, Assistant City Manager Rachel Kilburg told the council.

“We had great participation that was really exciting to see,” Kilburg said.

In the city’s survey results, the impact of the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition on public opinion is clear. The coalition is made up of 16 organizations in Iowa City, and it has been advocating for direct payments to workers who have been excluded from state and federal assistance programs because of their immigration status, in addition to other community spending. Many of the comments the city received repeated its demands, some directly copied from the coalition’s site.

“Fund Excluded Workers, direct cash payment to workers excluded from previous rounds of relief, hazard pay for essential workers, cooperative housing, expanded public transportation,” one comment read.

Other comments suggested improving access to mental health services, and funding infrastructure projects aimed at improving roads and parks, as well as expanding broadband internet.

Both Fruin and Kilburg stressed the need for the city to remain flexible in its plans, not only because its programs may overlap with county, state and federal programs, but also because major changes could be coming, if Congress passes President Biden’s infrastructure bill and the reconciliation spending package.

In the discussion following the presentation, councilmembers said the recommendations that had been presented reflected important priorities. They also discussed the possibility of using ARPA dollars to address other needs such as COVID-19 vaccination efforts and increasing affordable housing in the city.

“The affordable housing crisis is something real in this community,” said Mayor Pro Tem At-Large Mazahir Salih. “$18 million is our opportunity to really focus on that. We’re not going to find another opportunity like this.”

Mayor Bruce Teague reiterated the need to balance short-term relief and long-term relief. “$18 million is a lot of money. It still isn’t enough money for our city,” he said.

The mayor said seeing all the challenges residents are facing “in one space is a lot to digest,” but added “when I do look at the list, I do find hope and opportunity…when we look at the direct payment for eligible adults for those that were really excluded, I think this is a great opportunity that we can give to those individuals.”

As the mayor was making those remarks, almost 100 supporters of the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition were gathered outside the Senior Center, where the city council currently meets. They were preparing to attend the formal session, to share their stories and voice their demands during the period allotted for public comments on topics not on the formal meeting’s agenda.

During the 45-minute public comment period, all 18 speakers were supporters of the coalition and plan for immediate, direct payments.

“We took the risk to go back to work so society could keep functioning,” said Ninoska Campos, a mother of two from Honduras. “We’re here in front of your guys to ask for your support.”

Campos was assisted by Emily Sinnwell, a member of the coalition, who provided translation services for the speakers who addressed the council in Spanish.

Speaker after speaker endorsed the coalition’s plan, which calls for the city and the county to dedicate $4 million of their ARPA funds to create a program of direct payments to workers whose undocumented immigration status had kept them from receiving any federal aid during the pandemic. The plan calls for the city and county to spend another $500,000 to administer the program. The coalition wants the $8.5 million program to be administered by the city or county, not by a nonprofit that may require documentation or have reporting requirements that could create barriers to the excluded workers receiving aid.

Supporters want the program to make direct payments of $3,200 to each adult and for each child in a family, saying that it should be up to recipients to decide how the money is spent, just as it was up to those who received federal stimulus payments as pandemic relief.

Some of the people attending the council meeting brought their children. One young girl named Kayla went to the podium and spoke to the councilmembers.

“Our parents need the money so we can get food,” she said into the lowered microphone.

Katy Beckler, a member of Service Employees International Union Local 199, which is part of the coalition, took issue with the city manager’s preliminary numbers for direct payments.

“The suggested allocation was criminally low. $2,000? Only for adults?” she said. “It is time to do something. Right now.”

Most of the speakers stressed the importantance of acting immediately to provide relief. People need the funds not five months from now, but now, one speaker said.

After assisting numerous speakers by translating, Sinnwell addressed the council as the comment period’s final speaker. She restated the coalition’s plan for direct payments.

“There have to be no restrictions,” she said. “People are fearful sometimes about giving away certain information.”

Sinnwell pointed to the Johnson County Community ID Card as a model of how a government program can be shaped to serve the needs of undocumented residents, and as a demonstration that the fund proposed by the coalition is a practical way to provide needed relief.

“Iowa City and Johnson County, we can set the example” for helping excluded workers, Sinnwell said. “We can start this, so that other counties and cities in Iowa can do the same thing.”

She compared it to the mask mandate Mayor Teague introduced last month, saying the fund could serve as an innovative way around barriers to community wellbeing created by the state.

“Let’s be the model for the excluded workers fund, and do the right thing,” Sinnwell concluded.