‘Give it to the people’: Iowa City holds public discussion on how to spend $18 million in pandemic relief

The City of Iowa City holds a public listening session on the allocation of ARPA funds in Mercer Park, Aug. 11, 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Advocates for immediate action to assist marginalized members of the community made their voices heard in Mercer Park on Wednesday evening, as city officials held a public input session on how to spend the $18.3 million dollars in federal aid being provided to Iowa City under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

President Biden signed the $1.9 billion ARPA into law on March 11. In addition to the $18.3 million for Iowa City, the act also provides $3.1 million for Coralville, $2.7 million for North Liberty and $29.3 million to the Johnson County government.

The money is part of the Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund, intended to help municipal governments and their communities recover from the pandemic. Half of the funds were received in May with the remaining funds scheduled to arrive next year.

According to ARPA, the funds must be obligated for particular purposes by Dec. 31, 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

Rules created by the U.S. Treasury Department specify the funds may be used to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on public health and the local economy, provide premium pay for eligible workers performing essential work, replace lost revenue and restore government service levels and/or necessary water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

ARPA gives local governments flexibility and discretion with how to use the funds to address those needs. That is why Iowa City has been soliciting public input. And despite the heat and looming thunderclouds on Wednesday evening, more than 100 people attended the Mercer Park session to listen and express their opinions.

Attendants write down their comments and suggestions on the allocation of ARPA funds in Mercer Park, on Wednesday, August 11, 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Many speakers talked about working through the pandemic but receiving no assistance through federal stimulus payments, hazard pay or unemployment benefits.

“Don’t give it to some businesses who’s not gonna pay minimum wages,” Eric Harris, who serves on the Iowa City Ad Hoc Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), said. “It’s not gonna help.”

Paul Lee, a member of the Iowa City Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), said, “Give it to the people who make this community run.”

The TRC and DSA are both part of the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition. Fourteen other organizations make up the coalition: Iowa City Catholic Worker, Iowa Freedom Riders, LULAC 308, LULAC Statewide Council, Great Plains Action Society, Ex-Incarcerated People Organizing Iowa, Iowa Student Action, SEIU Local 199, AFSCME 12, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI), Corridor Community Action Network, Iowa City Mutual Aid Collective, Community Transportation Committee, and Veterans for Peace Iowa City.

Paul Lee, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, poses for a portrait in Mercer Park during a public listening session on the allocation of ARPA funds, Aug. 11, 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Single mothers, healthcare workers and other community members speaking at the Wednesday event stressed the urgent need for relief in the face of rent payments and backlogged bills.

“The city is stalling,” Kenn Bowen, a member of Iowa CCI, said. “It’s time to stop talking and start walking.”

Fruin told the crowd, “We are not making decisions now.”

The city manager’s office will compile and submit responses on ARPA to the Iowa City Council to discuss during its work session on Sept. 7.

“Rent payments don’t wait for your council,” a woman shouted back.

“These things take time, and I know that’s frustrating to hear,” Fruin said. “But we’ve tried to be very clear from the start, soon after the legislation was passed, this is the process we’re gonna go down.”

The City of Iowa City holds a public listening session on the allocation of ARPA funds in Mercer Park, on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

The overwhelming sentiment expressed at the meeting was that the city isn’t responding fast enough and some people simply cannot wait until September. Fruin listened to the speakers, nodding along as people spoke, occasionally grabbing his clipboard to jot notes.

“There’s a balance of urgency and planfulness,” he said afterwards.

City Manager Geoff Fruin listens to comments during a public listening session on the allocation of ARPA funds in Mercer Park, on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Prior to the session, the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition held a rally at the Catholic Worker House in Iowa City and then marched to Mercer Park. The coalition advocates for funding to go directly to members of the community who did not receive support from the previous COVID-19 stimulus packages.

The coalition has published six demands on how ARPA funds should be spent.

$20 million in direct cash assistance for up to 6,000 excluded workers, undocumented immigrants, previously incarcerated people, cash economy workers, and their families.

$20 million in hazard pay bonuses of $1,600 each for up to 12,000 low-wage, public-sector, and essential workers in Johnson County who make less than $15 an hour.

$5 million to purchase 54 new units of affordable and cooperative housing for immigrants, refugees, and previously incarcerated people.

$3 million to expand public transit to late-nights and Sundays.

$3 million for agrarian reform, to return stolen land back to Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color.

$3 million to grassroots, BIPOC-led nonprofits and faith institutions, with annual budgets less than $250,000 and demonstrable bases of community support, who do not primarily rely on government funding.

“From what we’re seeing the guidelines are really broad, and that’s absolutely a part of what this money could be used on,” Katie Biechler of SEIU Local 199 said. “The priority is that people have the relief that they need. We’ve had a lot of eyes on the proposal and lots of eyes on the guidelines that have come out, and from everything we researched, these are all definitely within the city and the county’s purview to make happen.”

The City of Iowa City holds a public listening session on the allocation of ARPA funds in Mercer Park, on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

In addition to holding public input sessions, the city has an online survey regarding how to spend ARPA funds. The survey is available in English, Spanish, French and Arabic.

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