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Here’s how Mayor Elorza wants to spend $124 million in COVID relief

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Mayor Jorge Elorza has submitted a proposal to the Providence City Council to spend the city’s remaining funds from the American Rescue Plan Act in a wide variety of areas ranging from housing to reparations to redesigning Kennedy Plaza.

The nearly $124 million spending ordinance will need to be approved by the City Council after being vetted — and possibly amended — by the Council Finance Committee.

The largest chunk of the new proposal — $28 million — is slated to go towards housing and homelessness, including $17 million to develop affordable housing through the Providence Redevelopment Agency.

Another nearly $28 million is slated for “revenue recovery” in the next two budget years, replacing any continued revenue losses caused by the pandemic, such as lost hotel and meal tax receipts or parking revenue.

Broadly, Elorza proposes to spend the remaining money on arts and tourism ($7.7 million), business and economic development ($5.3 million), city services and infrastructure ($12.5 million), sustainability ($12 million), racial equity ($15 million) and youth and community investments ($12 million).

Another $3 million is proposed just to administer the funds; the city has hired multiple new staffers and brought on a consultant to manage the funds and ensure compliance with federal law.

“It’s fair to say that nearly every aspect of our lives have been impacted by this pandemic over the past 22, 23 months,” Elorza said in a Zoom call with reporters. “But the hardships of the pandemic weren’t experienced equally by everyone throughout the city.”

The racial equity portion of Elorza’s proposal includes $10 million for reparations, through a new program called the COVID-19 Inequities Program. The money would be used “to address disparate impacts of COVID-19 due to structural racism and provide reparation to such individuals,” according to a news release.

It’s not yet clear if the $10 million would be used for direct payments to residents, or how exactly the money would be spent. Elorza said a public body will be formed to determine how best to provide reparations to those most affected by the pandemic.

Another $500,000 would be spent to extend the existing guaranteed income pilot program by six more months, continuing to assist the same 110 recipients currently receiving $500 a month. The existing program is philanthropically funded, but if approved the expansion would be the first time taxpayer dollars are used for such a program.

Elorza’s plan also includes $14 million spread between two categories for the redesign of Kennedy Plaza and other adjacent downtown spots, a longtime goal of the mayor that was last estimated to cost $140 million total.

In a briefing with reporters, he said he sought to spend money on one-time projects rather than creating too many new programs that won’t have a revenue stream once the ARPA money runs out.

Within the youth investment category, the proposal includes $2 million for nonviolence initiatives such as youth jobs and mentoring. Shootings and homicides have soared in Providence during the pandemic.

Providence received more than $166 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, which was signed into law by President Biden in March.

City leaders allocated $42 million in July to a variety of areas and projects including WaterFire, a small business relief fund, revenue replacement, nonviolence investments and a new welcome center in Roger Williams Park, among other items.

The initial funds were allocated without any public input. But the city subsequently convened a task force over the summer that received input from the public at meetings and via a survey, which more than 1,000 people filled out.

The task force released a report recommending that the majority of the money be spent on housing and homelessness, among other areas.

Along with the $17 million for affordable housing, Elorza’s housing proposals include $3 million for a home repair program, $500,000 for affordable and alternate housing programming, $1 million for emergency housing solutions, $4 million for rapid rehousing, $600,000 for lawyers for tenants, and $2 million for permanent supportive housing.

Elorza’s office did not immediately have an estimate as to how many affordable housing units could be built with the $17 million if approved, or how quickly they could become available.

Some of the proposed spending will require a competitive bidding process for contractors to complete the work, which means it could be a while before much of the money is actually spent. Other spending could happen more quickly if funnelled to the city’s existing programs, such as the $1.5 million proposed for job training.

The new ordinance is expected to be formally received by the City Council at its meeting on Thursday, as an “off-docket” item since it was not submitted in time to be placed on the agenda.

Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, the chair of the Finance Committee, said she had not been briefed on the proposal and has not yet reviewed it. The committee will begin vetting it once it’s formally submitted, she said.

“We take our responsibility very seriously,” Ryan said. “We’ll do our due diligence and vet this budget like we do any budget presented to us.”

She noted that the ARPA money represents a “once-in-a-lifetime” investment for a city that has struggled financially.

“This is a real opportunity to help reset us and put us on a good foot going forward,” Ryan added. “I’m going to be looking to make sure we’re making meaningful investments as opposed to programmatic spending and growing the budget.”

This is a developing news story and will be updated.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2022 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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