What would it be like to go to sleep one night and wake up the next day with more than $21.5 million deposited in your account?

And what if you knew an equal amount was going to be deposited in your account next year, bringing the grand total to $43,173,654?

That’s essentially the experience of the City, receiving the first batch of federal stimulus funds from the U. S. Treasury last week.

Now, all officials have to do is figure out how to divvy up the funds,  which came through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Fiscal Recovery Fund. ARPA is providing $350 billion to local governments to aid their recovery from COVID-19.

The federal government released guidelines for use of the funds May 10, said City Manager Erika Storlie, leading off a staff presentation on the issue at the May 24 City Council meeting.

“So we’ve had a few weeks to just digest those guidelines,” Ms. Storlie told Council Members, “and then try to put them into a format to help the community understand what we have here as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to really change the landscape of our recovery.”

The guidelines are generally viewed as broader than those attached to the Republican-backed relief bill last year (best known as the CARES Act) which earmarked $150 billion in state and local government aid for expenses tied to the public health emergency.

City officials, Kay Lewis-Lakin, the City’s Budget Coordinator, and Hitesh Desai, the City’s Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer, said a key criterion for use of the ARPA funds for a project or item is “Was this impacted or harmed by the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19?”

Staff is planning to go out to the public to get some feedback to that question, officials said.

“Currently, staff is suggesting that we move forward with town halls,” said Ms. Lewis-Lakin, briefing Council members, “and we partner with not-for-profits to really get those hard-to-reach community folks that might not show up if it was just a City event.”
Staff has also worked to create a post-COVID-19 action plan, she said. The 11-page plan is not highlighted on the City web page, cityofevanston.org but can be found by doing a search.

The plan, issued May 10, former Mayor Stephen Hagerty’s last day in office, “currently it’s seeking feedback from the community,” Ms. Lewis-Lakin said, “and what this document really does is just helped establish community priorities. It gives sort of a list of ideas that we internally have seen happening in Evanston, but now we’re looking for outside feedback for, again, what the community really wants to see in the future.”

Staff has identified some recommended priority areas in their report — “securing our financial future; improving community health and wellness; stimulating economic recovery; investing in infrastructure;” using the funds on areas that are self-sustaining, revenue generating and long lasting.”

Some non-eligible uses for the funds include offsetting tax cuts, pension fund deposits, legal settlements, funding debt service, and funding rainy day funds/financial reserves, all of which have been areas of need for the City in the past.

The funds could be used to bolster the City’s financial future in other areas, though, officials said.

They include the following:
Public Health:  covering any remaining COVID-19 pandemic costs not covered by other grants;
Economic Impact: increasing the public sector workforce to pre-pandemic levels;
Revenue Loss: replacing revenue loss caused by COVID-19.
Officials are expected to receive demands in other areas eligible for funds.
Those areas include improving community health, stimulating the economic recovery (which could include help with workers childcare), supporting the hardest hit industries.”

Premium pay is also eligible too, officials said, allowing the City to use ARPA funds to pay eligible City employees engaged in essential work throughout the pandemic.

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.