Evanston has a historic reparations program.

Now it has only to find a funding source.

Former Fifth Ward Council Member Robin Rue Simmons addresses the Evanston City Council Monday night in support of the Reparations Committee’s request for $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

Evanston City Council members balked at a request from the city’s Reparations Committee Nov. 14 for $5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to support reparation initiatives in housing and economic development, with some wondering if ARPA was the right vehicle.

Instead, council members agreed to hold a wider discussion of how to fund the city’s reparations programs, whose source of funding – a local tax on cannabis sales – is performing worse than expected.

Council members set Dec. 12 to meet for the discussion. Meanwhile, they approved another request from the committee, directing staff to deposit real estate transfer tax revenue from the  sales of properties of $1.5 million or more into the reparations fund.

In November 2019, the Evanston City Council established what is regarded as the country’s first reparations program, committing the first $10 million of the city’s 3% cannabis tax to fund local reparations for housing and economic development programs for Black Evanston residents.

The tax, however, is producing “less than expected,” reported Tasheik Kerr, assistant to the City Manager, in a memo to council members for the Nov. 14 meeting.

Dispensary shortfall clouds funding picture

“At the time of the passing of the resolution, it was anticipated that the City would have three cannabis dispensaries operating in the City; however, the State of Illinois delayed the distribution of the Conditional Adult Use Dispensing licenses,” wrote Kerr in her memo.

“It was not until July 2022 that the Illinois Department of Revenue released a list of recipients. To date, staff has fielded one phone call from a prospect who intends to conduct additional research on the Evanston market. Since various market and local conditions influence a potential dispensary operator to locate in a city, uncertainty remains on whether the City would have another cannabis dispensary.”

The Reparations Committee identified the use of ARPA funds as a possible source. Under ARPA, guidelines identified for eligibility residents living in Qualified Census Tracts (QCTs) and “disproportionately impacted by the pandemic … citizens and residents of the United States who remain unemployed, out of the labor force, or unable to pay their bills, with this pain particularly acute among lower-income and communities of color.”

In addition, the QCTs directly overlapped with redlining practices in the Black areas of the city, Kerr noted.

In discussion, council members expressed strong support for the city’s reparations program but wondered whether the city should use ARPA funds.

An allocation of $5 million would bring remaining funds of the $43.1 million in federal Covid recovery money that the city received to under $200,000, calculated Sarah Flax, the city’s interim Community Development Director.

Mixed reaction

In discussion, Ninth Ward Council Member Juan Geracaris noted, “I think we have to move forward on making this kind of investment in reparations.” He wondered, however, if there were a way to “allow more flexibility and not tie this up with ARPA.”

Similarly, Fourth Ward Council Member Jonathan Nieuwsma spoke of the need to fund reparations, “especially for seniors who are going to need the money soon rather than later.”

But, he added, “I am kind of balking at a $5 million ‘ask’ which takes, almost fully depletes, our fund without taking a minute to think about it,” he said. “One way or the other, I’d like to find more money for reparations but I’m little uncomfortable with the ‘ask’ for this evening.”

Seventh Ward Council Member Eleanor Revelle said she was on the same wavelength.

“I appreciate adding economic development as a focus area for reparations work because I think that’s something that the community has been expecting all along,” she said.

“But I guess I would feel a lot more comfortable if there were more details on what the ARPA funds would be used for. All the other proposals [for ARPA funds the city has received] have had much more detailed budgets or expense categories.”

‘500 million percent behind,’ says Harris

Second Ward Council Member Krissie Harris, though, declared she’s “500 million percent behind this [request]. We understand that the $5 million dollars is a big ask but it’s an appropriate ask.”

Earlier in the eventing the council agreed to allocate $1.2 million for someone The Rebuilding Exchange to buy a building, Harris said. The $5 million will recirculate locally and, if administered right, will help the community including disenfranchised people, she added.

“So It’s important that we live up commitment and try to fix the harm,” she said. “I agree that $5 million is a lot but it is not anywhere near what is due to this population.”

“Five million dollars is actually a slap in the face,” she argued.

Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, wondered that “given our concern about maintaining reparations as strictly race-based whether it would be better to use reserve funds to bolster the city’s reparations funds.”

Council Member Bobby Burns, 5th Ward, spoke in favor of splitting funding between ARPA and city reserves, with restorative housing for seniors a special focus.

He also spoke of the city’s commitment to “satisfying an obligation to descendants who already qualified for the reparations program.”

Rue Simmons: A collective benefit

Sitting in on the discussion, Former Fifth Ward Council Member Robin Rue Simmons, a member of the Reparations Committee and leading force in pushing the city to adopt the pioneering reparations program, told council members that housing, economic development and educational initiatives were named as priorities for reparations in a 2019 community process.

She said ARPA’s focus on qualified census tracts also would be in line with some of the recommendations that grew out of that process, including some kind of “collective benefit looking at business districts in the Fifth Ward and so on.”

“So although [ARPA] is not exactly ideal what we would like to see for for reparations,” she said, “it certainly meets the needs of the community, in really making a demand and a case for economic development.”

Council members split over whether acting on the ARPA request or holding off for wider discussion.

As discussion wound down, Mayor Daniel Biss observed that he heard “a lot of really legitimate ideas,” some “incompatible with each other.”

He said he wasn’t interested in “delaying for the sake of delay.”

On the other hand, he said, “I’ll be very supportive of delaying for the sake of getting this right.”

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.

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