We co-hosted a virtual roundtable discussion with the National League of Cities to explore community engagement strategies local governments used to determine how to spend pandemic relief provided by the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF). The panel of local government officials and subject matter experts discussed approaches to community engagement strategies, policy issues that informed how local governments used the funds, and the value of public engagement.
The American Rescue Plan Act’s (ARPA) SLFRF provided $350 billion of direct, flexible funding for COVID-19 response and recovery. Local governments turned to their community for input on how to spend the funds by encouraging residents to complete surveys, join townhalls, and propose budgets using online spending simulators.
Here are some key takeaways from the discussion:
The SLFRF can be used as a seed for long-term policy change
Amanda Kass, an Assistant Professor at DePaul University who researches how local governments use SLFRF, said the flexible nature of the funding allows localities to target disadvantaged communities and address longstanding inequities that were exacerbated by the pandemic. While Kass finds that most of the money spent so far has gone toward easing administrative burdens and revenue replacement, she sees a trend of local governments using community engagement strategies to involve residents in future spending decisions. Kass noted that a handful of localities are using a portion of recovery funds to pilot new programs, such as universal basic income and violence intervention, that address residents’ most pressing policy concerns.
“Because of this, I think that the ultimate story, when we look 10 years from now at how the fiscal recovery aid was used and what's prioritized, we won't be able to say just one aggregate story, but we really need to talk about many different stories that are tied to governments’ unique socioeconomic conditions,” said Kass.
Local governments considered the amount of funding received and community’s input when deciding which projects to fund
Annette C.M. Guzman, Budget Director for Cook County Government, shared that the number of proposals residents submitted far exceeded the amount Cook County could fund, due to financial and time constraints. Local governments have until December 31, 2024, to obligate the funding and December 31, 2026, to spend the funding. Because of these deadlines, Cook County’s policy team determined when to end the community engagement period to “get the programs up and running and out the door,” according to Guzman.
The team grouped proposals based on whether they would have a short-term, long-term, or transformative impact, and then filtered the proposals through the county’s six policy priorities. “It took a year-and-a-half, countless hours, countless people who really took the time to think through what would help advance our communities,” said Guzman. “I think, because so many people were involved in that process, we came out with really good outcomes and results for the spending plan Cook County came up with.”
Some localities struggle to meet the deadline to fully expend SLFRF funds
Shamiah T. Kerney, Chief Recovery Officer in the Mayor's Office of Recovery Programs for the City of Baltimore, believes some local governments may not have enough time to obligate and spend the funding. Kerney shared that the bureaucratic processes in Baltimore City, along with the complex nature of proposed projects, prevent the mayor’s office from obligating the funds quicker. Although Baltimore City is among local governments that may face challenges in expending funds by the deadline, Kerney emphasized that the mayor’s office is committed to doing as much as it can within the timeframe. “I believe that all of us, if we're being honest with ourselves, would advocate for additional time to make sure that we're doing this right and that we're avoiding – or mitigating – the risk of waste, fraud and abuse,” said Kerney.
Grace Kyung, Senior Strategic Initiatives Manager for the Office of Mayor Tishaura O. Jones for the City of St. Louis, suggested St. Louis’ capacity to expend the funds within the timeframe could be expanded by streamlining the request for proposals process and introducing technical assistance to support subrecipients who may want to apply for funding. She noted that the mayor’s office is aware that subrecipients could do grant-funded work well based on the work they do in their communities, but many don’t apply because they don’t have the staffing, finances, or sponsorships from larger institutions that would enable them to complete applications. Streamlining the process takes time, said Kyung, and “it’s not by the fault of any of us on this call or any other municipality that does that work, but it does raise real challenges in doing that work well while also being in compliance with what we need to accomplish.”
Joshua Pine, Program Manager for City Innovation and Data in the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities, added that many localities – especially those in smaller communities – are operating with less revenue than before the pandemic, despite the unprecedented amount of aid they received through SLFRF. Pine believes it’s important to keep in mind “the challenges of having decreased staff while also having increased responsibilities to engage in this work.” While it is often assumed that cities and counties now operate in a budget surplus, Pine noted that they’re working to replenish staff, jumpstart core government services, and address pre-pandemic budgetary challenges, which affect their ability to obligate and spend funds by the deadlines.
Localities are developing sustainability models to continue programs and services beyond ARPA
After receiving SLFRF, Cook County Government knew certain programs and services were developed to meet immediate needs; others, like the guaranteed income program, have the potential to bring forth transformational change in the community. Officials in Cook County established an equity fund and are working to identify new revenue sources to sustain long-term programs beyond 2026.
Guzman believes SLFRF gave local governments the opportunity to assess which programs would improve health outcomes, generate business, and further education and careers among residents of their communities. “This is why I thought, from the very beginning, this was a groundbreaking decision from the federal government to not only fund it, but to say, ‘Hey, we're not putting a bunch of restrictions on you. Go forth and do what you think is best for your communities,’” said Guzman.
This co-sponsored activity does not constitute or imply an endorsement of National League of Cities or any of its products or services by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, or the United States government.
- Grace Kyung: Senior Strategic Initiatives Manager, Office of Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, City of St. Louis, MO
- Shamiah T. Kerney: Chief Recovery Officer, Mayor's Office of Recovery Programs, City of Baltimore, MD
- Jon Decker: Budget and Evaluation Director, City of Greensboro, NC
- Annette C.M. Guzman: Budget Director, Cook County Government, IL
- Joshua Pine: Program Manager, City Innovation and Data, Center for City Solutions, National League of Cities
- Amanda Kass: Assistant Professor, DePaul University