The village of Oak Park is slated to receive $38.9 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds from the federal government. ARP specifies that the funds have four authorized uses:
1) Responding to public health needs and economic damage from the pandemic,
2) Providing premium/hazard pay for essential workers,
3) Replacing lost revenue,
4) Investing in necessary water and broadband infrastructure.
At the July 6 board meeting, the village trustees had our first discussion of how to distribute the $38.9 million in ARP funds. Village staff presented a plan where $31 million would go to the village to recover “lost revenue,” and $8 million would go to community partners (such as Housing Forward and Beyond Hunger) and toward the creation of a Business and Not-for-Profit COVID Recovery program.
As a board member, this was my first time hearing of the distribution strategy for the ARP funds. And as I reviewed the documents and listened to the conversation, it became clear that the community had not been consulted on the use of these funds. Additionally, I am not in agreement with the village pocketing over 75% of the ARP funds in the name of “lost revenue.” As discussed during the June 14 board meeting, the downfall in revenue anticipated by the village in 2020 was not as severe as anticipated, resulting in a surplus in our General Fund (See the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, MD&A page 10, from Agenda Item A, June 14, 2021 Board Meeting). So even though the village lost revenue, it wasn’t as great of a loss as anticipated and certainly not a $31 million revenue loss.
The village has yet to host an open forum inviting community members to share their ideas for how the village’s ARP funds should be invested. These are taxpayer dollars after all, so shouldn’t community members have a majority voice in this discussion? In my conversations with community members, it’s clear that the pandemic has exacerbated already existing issues in our community. From mental and physical health issues, to housing and job insecurity, and lack of access to basic necessities, people in our community are struggling. Everyone should be concerned that our village’s budget is being centered on these discussions over the basic needs of our residents.
The ARP funds offer the village a once-in-a-generation chance to reimagine our community so that everyone has what they need to thrive. We can use the pandemic as a portal to imagine and create a new world. What can we create with ARP funds that doesn’t currently exist? What mental health services could we build so that mental health professionals, not the police, respond to calls for crisis? What public health outreach programs can we create that would proactively address health issues for our residents? This opportunity is not the time to prioritize fiscal conservatism over the needs of our community.
It’s time for you, community member, to demand more from your village government, and ensure that ARP funds are utilized in ways that most benefit our community. Email the board of trustees at firstname.lastname@example.org, or submit your public comment for the next board meeting at email@example.com, and let us know what community initiatives you want to support with the $38.9 million in ARP funds.
Arti Walker-Peddakotla is an Oak Park village trustee.