Getting money is one thing. Spending it is another.
Members of Asheville City Council faced the latter challenge during a July 27 work session aimed at narrowing a list of priorities for spending roughly $26.2 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, a COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress in March.
Patricia Rosenberg, the city’s internal auditor, explained to Council that the money could be spent on a range of uses, including COVID-19 mitigation and prevention, infrastructure, community investment, housing and crime prevention. But concerns quickly arose as Council members disagreed on what Asheville’s top priorities should be.
The discussion revolved around a list of 24 focus areas that had been assembled based on previous public input and ranked by city staff. Highest on staff’s list were affordable housing, public engagement, homelessness, public and mental health, small-business recovery and workforce development. The lowest-ranked items included arts, child care and environmental protection. Some potential funding categories, such as education, transit and rental assistance, were downgraded due to already receiving other coronavirus-related funds elsewhere, explained Rosenberg.
Council member Sandra Kilgore voiced a desire for more workforce education while arguing that the available money would not put a dent in Asheville’s affordable housing crisis. Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith disagreed with the low ranking for food security. Council member Kim Roney said cutting the list before the public could provide additional input would be premature.
Council member Gwen Wisler also flagged the potential pitfalls of overlapping efforts with the county, which will receive nearly $51 million in ARPA funds. “You’ve got the county to do the same kinds of processes. … How are we going to coordinate all that funding to make sure we’re going to spread it out and make sure some people aren’t getting too much and others aren’t going to get left out?” she asked.
And Mayor Esther Manheimer noted that, while the money presents an opportunity for the city to delve into new projects, staff resources are limited. She suggested that the city may lack the ability to take on new types of projects by the end of 2024, the deadline for using the funds.
“I guess I just worry a little bit that it sounds like, ‘The world is your oyster. Come up with all the bright ideas you could possibly think of,’” Manheimer said. “But in reality, my understanding is that this funding needs to be spent within a certain amount of time. It’s not supposed to be a 10-year project.”
Around $3.85 million of the ARPA money has already been allocated to fund emergency noncongregate homeless shelters, support public restrooms and assist Homeward Bound of WNC in purchasing a hotel, which the nonprofit will convert into 85 units of permanent supportive housing for local people experiencing homelessness. Another $2.75 million has tentatively been earmarked for administering the funds and replacing city parking revenue lost during the pandemic.
Council is also scheduled to vote on spending another $9.2 million to purchase another hotel and operate it as a low-barrier homeless shelter on Tuesday, Aug. 24. Should that project be approved, roughly $10.45 million would be left for other initiatives.
After nearly two hours of discussion, Council made no decisions about how to allocate that remaining funding. But City Manager Debra Campbell urged members to consider whether they would fund several small initiatives or create fewer, larger projects before their next discussion.
The next scheduled work session on the ARPA funding plans will take place at 2:30 p.m. Aug. 24 at Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville, 87 Haywood St. After that session and input from the community, city staff member are expected to develop requests for proposals for specific projects, on which Council will ultimately vote.