How should city spend its millions?

Infusion of federal dollars spurs plan for workshops, discussion over process

Posted 11/10/21

By DANIEL KITTREDGE How should Cranston utilize a multi-million dollar cash infusion one official described as a "once in a lifetime opportunity"? Plans are in the works for public meetings to hear from residents on that question. The City Council's

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How should city spend its millions?

Infusion of federal dollars spurs plan for workshops, discussion over process


How should Cranston utilize a multi-million dollar cash infusion one official described as a “once in a lifetime opportunity”?

Plans are in the works for public meetings to hear from residents on that question.

The City Council’s Finance Committee last week backed two measures related to the $42.6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act money the city will receive – the first a resolution calling for special public workshops and the creation of a report based on those sessions, the second an ordinance spelling out the process through which the windfall may actually be spent.

The discussion was not without disagreement and moments of tension as council members offered differing views of how to approach the issue, both in terms of public outreach and the spending approval process. But there was universal agreement on the need to hear from a broad range of community members and involve both the legislative and executive branches of local government.

“Transparency is key … We want feedback. We need feedback,” Council President Chris Paplauskas said toward the end of Monday’s discussion.

The fiscal infusion the city is receiving through its ARPA allotment is enormous. The $42.6 million figure comes from a larger pool of roughly $537 million being split among the state’s municipalities. For context, Cranston’s operating budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 totals roughly $311 million.

The city has already received half of its ARPA funding, or roughly $21.3 million, Finance Director Robert Strom told council members last week. That funding is currently in a restricted account, he said. The rest of the funding is expected to arrive in the city’s coffers in May and August 2022.

A portion of the funding is already spoken for. The budget plan for the current fiscal year put forward by Mayor Ken Hopkins and adopted in amended form by the council earlier this year relies on roughly $7.8 million of the APRA dollars to make up for revenue shortfalls attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As for the rest of the money? Hopkins and members of his administration have said they are considering a range of proposals, including capital investments across the community. Council members and local lawmakers, too, have hinted at some preliminary proposals.

Earlier this year, the political action committee Cranston Forward conducted a survey of residents on the use of the federal funding, which the group said produced responses focused on health care, education, small business relief, renewable energy and technology.

The clock is ticking on the formulation of concrete plans for the money. Current federal guidelines indicate it must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. The federal rules, as they now stand, also outline five broad areas on which the money can be spent – public health, economic recovery, government revenue replacement, premium pay for essential workers and investment in infrastructure, specifically water, sewer and broadband service.

During last week’s Finance Committee meeting, some questions arose over the ARPA-related ordinance that was brought up for consideration. That measure, sponsored by Citywide Councilwoman Jessica Marino and Council Vice President Robert Ferri, seeks to codify the process through which city leaders will approve spending of the federal money.

There was some question over whether the ordinance is needed, since it references requirements already established by the federal government and in the city’s charter.

“The concern is that we just don’t want to legally restrict the city more than the [American Rescue Plan Act] intended to do,” said Anthony Moretti, Hopkins’s chief of staff. He said the administration’s issues with the ordinance’s language were “more form over substance.”

Ward 6 Councilman Matthew Reilly went further, characterizing the ordinance as a move to “re-create the wheel.”

“These laws already exist … While I fully support the intent of this, I can’t support ordinances just for ordinances’ sake,” he said.

Marino, however, defended the proposal as a means of expressing the city’s commitment to a defined and transparent process. She also said the measure can be amended going forward if federal guidance is altered.

“This ordinance best protects us,” she said. “It makes it clear that we are moving in a direction that the federal government expects us to.”

The discussion over the ordinance led at one point to Ward 1 Councilwoman Lammis Vargas asking for a firm commitment from the administration to obtain council approval before “one penny” of the ARPA funding is spent.

Moretti replied: “There’ll be no request that the council does not approve. We’re in agreement, there’s no disagreement … Hopefully, this will be a joint effort. I think that’s the way Mayor Hopkins sees this.” He also said the administration views the planned public feedback process as “terrific.”

The committee’s vote in favor of the ordinance was 5-2, with Marino, Ferri and Paplauskas joined by Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan and Ward 4 Councilman Richard Campopiano in the majority. Reilly and Citywide Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli dissented.

Discussion over the agenda’s ARPA-related resolution – a measure sponsored by Marino, Ferri and Donegan, calling for a pair of public workshops to be held through the Finance Committee and live streamed from City Hall’s Council Chambers – proved more contentious.

Donegan introduced the resolution, saying it was the product of discussions among council members. The intent, he said, is to hear from a broad range of community members on their suggestions for the city’s use of the federal windfall.

“The funds we have here truly are a once in a lifetime opportunity to address many of the systemic inequities that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic and have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

The actual language of the resolution states that the city “shall invite its citizens, business leaders and governmental stakeholders to special meeting workshops of the City Council to engage in meaningful dialogue framed by the authorized uses of Cranston’s APRA allocations and for the purpose of soliciting their input on suggested uses of the APRA funds.”

It also states that at the conclusion of the workshops, the Finance Committee “shall compose a report of its findings in order to inform the Council as it approves the prioritization of the highest and best use of Cranston’s APRA allocation.”

As was the case with the ordinance, Reilly pushed back against the resolution, suggestion it was unnecessary.

“I’m more one to do something rather than say I’m going to do something,” he said, adding that he views the resolution as “one branch of government trying to puff their chest to another one.”

He added: “I agree with everything on here, but I’m not voting for it … I’d rather just get to work.”

Tensions rose as Ferri responded to Reilly, saying he was “offended at your suggestion that this is not necessary.” Paplauskas then made an unsuccessful motion to move the question, which would have ended debate and forced a vote on the resolution.

More discussion followed, some of it also charged. Questions were raised over how the sponsors of the resolution settled on their chosen format and timeline for the workshops, and whether circulating an online survey as part of the outreach effort would be valuable.

Ultimately, the resolution was approved on a 6-1 vote, with Reilly the sole dissenter.

Both the ARPA-related ordinance and resolution are set to go before the full council for consideration on Nov. 22.

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