Evanston officials are proposing to divide the $43.1 million in COVID recovery funds the City is receiving into five main areas – including economic development, social services, finances and infrastructure – in the first recommendations growing out of three town meetings about how to use this windfall of federal funds.

The staff recommendation is only the first step, though, with City Council Members already weighing in on where they would like to see the money go – no simple task for a local government with a pot of $43.1 million and plenty of community opinions on how to use it.

Saying their recommendations were based on community feedback, officials proposed allocating $5.5 million to economic development, $3 million to social services and $22 million to City finances and infrastructure.

Staff also recommended $6 million in funds be allocated to “Inclusive and Equitable Recovery,” a new category, where the focus would be on geographic areas most impacted by the pandemic. These would be areas where there are low-income families, people with preexisting health conditions, economic disparities and housing insecurity.

Staff’s plan calls for $2.5 million to go into a fifth category, “participatory budgeting,” in which community members could have a direct say on how the money is allocated, officials said.

On economic development, business community members have already made their needs known in hearings held by the City’s Economic Development Committee, City Manager Erika Storlie said in her report at the July 26 City Council meeting.

“Obviously there is a large demand for this kind of funding and a diverse set of needs, but it could be anything that would spur economic growth,” she said. “Recovery of our business community – from Central Street all the way to Howard Street – is absolutely critical for our long-term success as a community, and for supporting revenue and job creation Citywide.”

In the “City Finances and Infrastructure” category, staff expects to claim $10.3 million in General Fund revenues and another $4 million from the Parking Fund as losses directly related to COVID-19.

With those claims fitting in nicely with the guidelines of the federal program, “We can take and directly claim against certain portions of the funding and it gives us a little bit more flexibility in how we spend that funding,” she said.

That contrasts with other areas where “any money outside of direct revenue loss has to be utilized in a specific way,” Ms. Storlie said.

In that category, staff has marked as priorities lead service pipe line replacement, water and sewer repairs, revenue replacement, administrative costs and hazard pay for employees who worked during COVID-19.

“If we did go forward with using ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] money for those funds, then we wouldn’t have to borrow for those, so that’s a decision that we will be coming forward to the City,” Ms. Storlie said.

In the Inclusive and Equitable Recovery area, City officials  recommend allocating $6 million to be focused on certain geographic areas.

“The Rescue Act recommends that recipients consider geographic areas of greatest need, that have historically been under invested and lack the resilience of other parts of our community,” said Sarah Flax, the City’s Housing and Grants Administrator, addressing the Council. 

One such area is Census tract 8092, located in the heart of the Fifth Ward, she said.

“It was one of our NSP2 [Neighborhood Stabilization Program] census tracts that historically has some of our worst health outcomes and other things in addition to having a substantially low-income population,” she said. 

Some of the services funding could bring support for the area, such as housing assistance, affordable housing development, childcare and health-based services.

Some Council Members’ Preferences

In the discussion that followed the staff presentation, some Council Members suggested changes to the staff recommendations.

Council Member Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said she would like to see some “evening out,” among the funding categories, with more  assistance going to local social service agencies.

“Some of them jumped into action to help citizens during the pandemic,” she noted, “and particularly our childcare providers – a lot of them stayed open or opened up when schools were closed so people [could] still go to work – so I would love to see us tweak that number [funding those groups] a little more, even maybe looking at moving some infrastructure money to social services or something.”

Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, also suggested some money be moved from that area. He said several census tracts in the far southeast 8th Ward should also qualify in the Inclusive and Equitable Recovery, with its special geographic focus on distressed areas.

With evictions starting up, local assistance programs for renters are needed too, he said.

Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma, 4th Ward, also suggested some shifting around of the allocations may be in order.

He compared the staff proposal with the priorities identified by residents in the 4th Ward, placing pennies into Mason jars at a recent ward meeting.

The residents in the 4th Ward who participated in the exercise “came up with a different conclusion and put 45% of the ARPA funding into economic development, 32% into social services and a combined 23% into City finances and infrastructure,” he said. “So that’s kind of flipped around from what we have it here,” he said of the staff preferences. “So, based on that exercise. I would like to see at least some of the $22 million in City Finances and Infrastructure shifted to economic development.”

Fifth Ward Council Member Bobby Burns said he was particularly interested “to see how we are going to target individuals who faced hardship before COVID.

“I’d love to see how we can work that into our money,” he said. “And although there may be funds for lead pipe abatement, I’d love to see our Water Department create a workforce development program where we’re training local residents to do that work.”

He said that kind of experience, made available, could then open up the residents for other opportunities.

Council Member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, added prioritizing mental health to staff’s list.

In the economic development area, he said, “I hope that we’re able to take advantage of tools and programs that we’ve used in the past that have been proven successful. … I mean, we definitely have room to think outside of the box, but we have programs that we’ve utilized over the years; it’s just been a matter of not having enough funds to do it.”

One such program, he suggested, was the City’s façade improvement program that attracted local business participation.

Mayor Stresses Including the Public

Mayor Daniel Biss joined the conversation.

The Mayor had presided over the well-attended town meetings, including one geared to the City’s Spanish-speaking residents.

The feedback received at the sessions “was really, really helpful,” he said.

Further, as officials move forward on the process, “I don’t think that closes the door on our responsibility to solicit public input during the course of this process,” Mayor Biss said.

He said another big question is “just how to think through the trade-offs – how to figure out how much to allocate to this, versus how much to allocate to that.

“And I think we’ll be making a mistake if we don’t act intentionally about engaging the public in that process as well,” the Mayor said.

“So I want to make sure that we do that,” he said to Council Members.

“I don’t think we need to do that before a single dime goes out the door. But I do think we need to do that before we’ve finalized our comprehensive plan for all of this, because I think the public has an expectation that not only will they throw some ideas at us, but they’ll be at the table when we start to sort through those ideas and direct priorities.”

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.