By Bob Seidenberg
Workforce development, hazard pay for employees, and climate action strategies are among the items on the table as Evanston City Council members weigh spending $43.1 million in federal COVID-19 recovery funds.
Council Members are not ready to make decisions quite yet. With a long list of community needs to consider, they indicated at their Sept. 20 meeting they might need several more meetings to discuss where the money will go. The meeting was held both virtually and in-person.
At the meeting, staff suggested the “buckets” or categories to place the funds, which are provided the American Rescue Protection Act (ARPA).
Economic development was one of those areas, with officials recommending the City use $5.5 million of $43.1 million ARPA funds for economic development, to bolster businesses here, some of which were already struggling before the pandemic. Of that $5.5 million, officials recommended that an estimated $750,000 go toward “workforce development,” which would include hiring a new City staff person to work with larger employers to identify jobs in demand.
Staff also recommended allocating $250,000 toward hiring a consultant to conduct a Citywide retail study. The study could look at the competitive market landscape, merchants’ expectations regarding customer demographics and incomes, and best practices used in other places.
The staff recommendation also called to fund hazard pay for those essential workers who are eligible.
Under ARPA, municipalities are allowed to provide hazard pay “to respond to workers performing essential work during the COVID-19 public health emergency by providing premium pay to eligible worker,” Interim City Manager Kelley Gandurski said in her memo.
She said eligible uses, positions and pay rates for providing premium pay to essential workers include the following: staff in healthcare; workers at farms and in food production, grocery stores and restaurants; janitors/ sanitation workers; truck drivers; transit staff and warehouse workers; public health and safety staff; childcare workers; educators; school staff; and social service and human services staff.
The provision allows an amount up to $13 per hour in addition to wages but cannot exceed $25,000 per eligible worker, Gardurski said.
City staff recommends setting aside $500,000 of ARPA funds to City workers who may be eligible to receive the hazard pay. The City’s Human Resources Department will work together with the City Manager’s Office to develop a policy for distribution, she said.
In the private sector, the Evanston Community Foundation, the City’s leading philanthropic organization, along with several partners, has embarked approximately eight roundtable discussions with groups to learn more about community needs, Gandurski told Council members.
“It ranges on everything from early childhood workforce development to Evanston’s school-aged children, immigrant and undocumented populations, arts and humanities,” and several other areas,” she said. That can be a topic “in and of itself,” she suggested.
Similarly, in another area, sustainability, the City passed a Climate Action Resilience Plan (CARP) in 2018 that was largely unfunded, she noted.
Staff recommends $1 million in ARPA funds be used in that area to support staffing for program and support for sustainability and environmental justice issues, she said.
In discussion at the Sept. 20 meeting, several Council Members suggested the Council had more work to do weighing use of the ARPA money, which they regard as a once-in a-generation opportunity for a City that has long struggled with budget deficits.
“When I looked at this ARPA money,” said Council Member Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, “I see this as really the investment dollars that we have always craved and never had in Evanston for so many of the projects. I want to make sure when we spend a good portion of this money, it’s all really investment in the future – on our capital projects, on the things that are going to last for decades. And, and the economic development issues I’m looking at the economic development issues, things that will continue.”
Council Member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, and a member of the Council’s Human Services Committee, expressed disappointment at where the allocation for social services programs presently stands.
“I believe we made a request, or there was a general kind of statement, that the social service allocation should be higher than the $3 million,” she commented. “That looks like it did not happen.”
On the economic development allocation, she raised some concerns about the need for some of the studies staff is recommending.
“I feel like we’ve had some studies done, maybe not as comprehensive,” she said. “But I would love for us to kind of look at what the other studies have said or what our SSAs [Special Service Areas] are saying, or what our business owners are saying, versus going out to get a consultant who might possibly be saying the same things that we already know just by asking other people.”
She also addressed the issue of hazard pay, expressing some hesitancy at setting aside a “half million dollars when we don’t have any idea of how many people were looking to pay hazard pay to and who qualifies.”
She asked whether a time could be set for “a really dedicated meeting” to the subject of ARPA funding.
Overall, “we’ve now only talked about this (ARPA funding) twice,” Fleming observed. “The community is very anxious to hear what our thoughts are – we’ve gotten a lot of input from the community,” she said.
While this document [the City’s memo] is good and gives us more information,” she said, Council members need more time outside a regular meeting to make decisions.
Mayor Daniel Biss echoed Fleming’s statement.
“This is a significant enough decision, significant enough amount of money. These updates are invaluable; they represent a lot of work that’s gone into presentations,” he said.
“But then I think they demand a level of real in-depth discussion, back-and-forth that I think just can’t really be achieved as one of many agenda items,” at a regular Council meeting, he concluded.
Council Member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, indicated he would be seeking more details about staff’s hazard pay proposal, suggesting the City might prioritize staff that has been on the frontlines during COVID, “”customer-facing in front of our residents.”
Climate Action support
Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th, Ward, noted that some figures had changed since the Council’s Aug. 9 discussion of ARPA funds, sharing Fleming’s expectation that social service funding would be higher.
“I do hope that we can make those budget allocations more in alignment with what I’m hearing from my residents in the Fourth Ward, with what I understand my colleagues are hearing from their residents in other wards,” he said, “and also with in alignment with the presentation.”
He also spoke in support of the $1 million allocation to the City’s Climate Action Resilience Plan and said he favored upping that amount to $1.5 million.
Both the City’s carbon footprint and environmental justice “are related to each other and increasingly important, not only in our community but around the world,” he said.
“We’ve got a drought and wildfires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic and the Gulf Coast. Climate change is happening and it’s going to impact us here in Evanston.”
Money invested in CARP and environmental justice “will ensure that we’re ready for climate change, to help us reduce our carbon footprint which addresses the root cause of climate change,” he said.
Seventh Ward Council Member Eleanor Revelle also spoke in support of Fleming’s statement calling for an increase in social-services bucket.
“I have a note to myself from a previous meeting where the number of $1.7 million was mentioned as what was needed for early childhood,” she said, “so that takes a big dent out of our social-services bucket, and we haven’t even begun to talk about how we’re going to address mental health services and some of the other really important issues.”
Revelle, like Nieuwsma, active in environmental issues before going on the Council, said she was “very pleased to see us funding this unfunded mandate,” for climate action, “and I appreciate the idea of increasing that in order to be to do” environmental justice, she said.
Winding up, Wynne said she agreed that “we need some concentrated time to discuss this (ARPA) in great detail – probably over two sessions, maybe three, because we’re going to generate a lot of questions. We could probably generate questions on several of these buckets,” she said.