PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After months of discussions, the Providence City Council Finance Committee on Thursday night unveiled and approved an amended plan to spend the city’s $124 million in remaining federal COVID relief funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.
The ordinance, which now goes to the full City Council, is a modified version of the one proposed by Mayor Jorge Elorza in January. The mayor and the council collaborated to put together the new version, according to both Elorza’s finance director and the council chief of staff.
While the new proposal keeps intact proposals to spend $17 million on affordable housing and $10 million for a yet-to-be-defined reparations program, it significantly increases the amount of money reserved for “revenue recovery,” meant to help balance the next few budgets despite pandemic-related revenue losses.
Elorza had proposed $28 million for revenue recovery, but the council’s proposal increased that amount to nearly $37 million.
Finance Committee Chair Jo-Ann Ryan said there was concern during committee discussions that the initial estimate for continued revenue losses was too low.
“We wanted to be very conservative,” she said. The money would be set aside to use in the upcoming budgets.
The new ARPA plan sets aside $300,000 of the $3 million budget for “administrative expenditures” to fund an independent auditor who will oversee how the funds are spent.
“There is great concern that we need to monitor this,” Ryan said. “Because if it’s misspent, we run the chance of losing it.”
The proposal also significantly increases funding for the city’s community and recreation centers, adding 12 more centers to the original list for a total of 21, and doubling the amount each center will receive from $33,000 to $66,000. (The rec centers that weren’t previously on the list are all slated to get $50,000.)
An additional $3 million was set aside for general recreation center capital improvements. Funding for the Providence Community Library was also doubled to $1 million. Food security grants and elderly services funding were also increased, as was money for the Providence-Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Another $2.6 million was moved to the housing section for the Providence Redevelopment Agency — on top of the $28 million previously proposed for housing — to fund a “facilities development program” for a project that has not yet been disclosed. Jim Lombardi, the council chief of staff, said net proceeds from the agency’s sale of the unspecified property would be deposited into the city’s affordable housing trust.
A plan to add a $3 million line item for the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier was cancelled amid concerns that the line item wouldn’t meet the qualifications to use the ARPA money, Lombardi said. That money was instead moved to the “revenue recovery” section.
Lombardi said $25 million from the revenue recovery allocation is expected to be used to balance the budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year, which starts July 1. That money will help fund the hurricane barrier, Roger Williams Park Zoo and infrastructure, he said.
That leaves roughly $12 million in revenue recovery funds to be used to fill any budget gaps in the following two fiscal years. The money must be allocated by 2024.
Since the amount of federal funding available is fixed, the increases in some line items required cuts to other parts of Elorza’s original plan.
The proposal entirely removes $2 million for the Providence Promise program, which helps students pay for college; lowers the original $2.5 million for cybersecurity by $1 million; and cuts a proposed $2.5 million infrastructure fund for pre-K and early learning infrastructure down to $500,000.
Lombardi emphasized that the council and the Elorza administration were able to identify other grants or funds for many of the items that were cut, though a specific breakdown was not available.
“Just because it was decreased does not mean the council or the mayor does not support it,” Lombardi said. “There are other avenues to seek funding.”
Much of the proposed spending will ultimately require competitive bidding and contracts for organizations to get the funds.
The new ARPA proposal also renames and reshuffles many of the broad spending categories. They now break down as investments in housing ($31 million); water, sewer, broadband and infrastructure ($20 million); community and social disparities ($24 million); speeding the recovery of the tourism, travel and hospitality sectors ($6 million); economic stabilization – business ($3 million); revenue recovery ($37 million); and administrative expenses ($3 million).
“Guided by robust community input, Providence will be investing millions of dollars throughout our neighborhoods,” Elorza said in a statement Thursday night. “I look forward to working with the full City Council to finalize these allocations and move these critical investments forward.”
The mayor is expected to propose his full budget for the next fiscal year on Tuesday.
Ryan voted in favor of the plan along with Councilors Carmen Castillo and James Taylor. Committee members Helen Anthony and Nicholas Narducci were absent. (Anthony was attending a community meeting regarding the city’s proposed pension bond.)
The proposal, which now goes on to the full council, is the second tranche of money from the American Rescue Plan Act to be appropriated by city leaders. Last summer the council approved an initial $42 million of ARPA spending, a move that was criticized at the time because no public input had been sought before the funds were approved.
For the rest of the money, the city convened a task force which recommended last year that the bulk of the money be spent on housing and homelessness.