What would you do with $38 million? That is how much the village of Oak Park received from the federal government in the wake of the COVID pandemic. If you weren’t aware, you are not alone.

There has been little coverage of the fact that Oak Park is receiving the fourth largest payout from the federal government in Cook County through the America Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). While other municipalities and counties have conducted town halls and spent months engaging their communities about how to spend their funds, Oak Park trustees have not. At the Monday, July 19 board meeting the trustees placed one-third of the $38 million in the village’s General and Parking funds. Is that what you would have wanted?

The America Rescue Plan Act was signed by President Biden in anticipation of several factors that were impacting the lives of Americans through the pandemic. Oak Park is among the largest recipients of ARPA funds in Illinois, and as we emerge from the pandemic, this is the moment to unburden Oak Park’s taxpayers and set Oak Park on a strong trajectory for the future. Placing the money into the General and Parking funds has already lost accountability for the largest federal grant to our village that many of us will ever see.

The process for deciding how to use these funds should address priorities of the community: Creating resiliency for future pandemics, safety for our families, and attractiveness to diverse businesses. There are few restrictions on the use of these funds. So we should see them used to make the community better, not just to fill budget gaps.

Cook County and Evanston have both held multiple meetings each to get community input on how their funds are going to be used. Most importantly, through community engagement they reduce the chance that funds will be spent on redundant or unnecessary projects. How do we know that Oak Park isn’t spending its $38 million on something that Cook County is already spending its $1 billion in ARPA funding on?

Now is the time to tell the board how you want to use these funds and to convene meetings with community leaders, commissions, and nonprofits. The trustees need to show that they have the vision Oak Parkers deserve and that they are willing to be transparent with this and future federal grants that the village receives.

Stephen Morales recently ran as a candidate for the Oak Park Village Board.

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