Balancing Today’s Needs with Tomorrow’s Vision

“I do not believe purchasing of snow plows is transformational.”

The statement above, from a City Council member in Warren, Ohio, summarizes one of the struggles cities are grappling with as more and more of them propose, commit, and spend American Rescue Plan (ARP) Fiscal Recovery Funds. On one hand, Congress and the U.S. Department of Treasury have explicitly tasked cities with building “a strong, resilient, and equitable recovery by making investments that support long-term growth and opportunity.” On the other hand, cities face an endless list of general budgetary needs–from snow plows to street maintenance to law enforcement salaries and equipment and so on. These budgetary realities intersect in a variety of ways and are demonstrated clearly in the diverse ways cities are allocating and spending ARP (and bipartisan infrastructure act) resources.

The Ohio Mayors Alliance has been busy compiling U.S. Treasury data on how OMA cities have been planning for and spending their ARP funds. As of March 31, 2022 (when all cities had to file either a quarterly or annual report with Treasury), OMA cities had spent only about 12% of their total ARP allocations. They have, however, budgeted over $325 million to 170 projects across the state of Ohio, and are continuing to grapple with the question of meeting basic needs v. spending ARP’s one time funds in transformational ways. We expect to see the amounts of funds budgeted, approved, and spent rise drastically as more report data from cities is released by Treasury.

As Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb said in a recent op-ed, “we are not talking about spending ARPA dollars on one-off projects and programs. Such a list would be endless and, after three years, we would find ourselves in the same place we started. Instead, we need transformational strategies that can reverse decades of decline and disinvestment, improve residents’ quality of life, address economic and social disparities and enhance our competitiveness.” Cleveland, for example, has taken an explicitly transformational approach to planning for the expenditure of the over $400 million in ARP funds it has remaining to budget. Cleveland is assisted in this effort by experts from the Brookings Institute, and has created an explicit evaluation guide that will provide a matrix of factors for city leaders to consider as they evaluate and make plans for the city’s available funds. Other OMA cities, like Warren and Elyria, are taking a hybrid approach, using funds to fund needed equipment upgrades (including, yes, snow plows), but balancing that approach with an analysis and discussion of what kinds of spending plans will provide long term benefits to their communities.

As cities grapple with these choices and make decisions, OMA will catalog and report on the innovations they pursue and the successes they achieve. If nothing else, however, publicly discussing and sharing the decision making process provides state policymakers and residents with a crash course in understanding the issues local policymakers balance every day as they govern their communities.