Our country and village are experiencing the compounding crises of climate change and a pandemic — the effects of which will be felt for generations. These crises cannot be solved by individuals alone. They are systemic problems that require significant investment. Recognizing the scale of these issues, the federal government created the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to empower municipalities to invest in their recovery and build a more resilient future.
Oak Park is receiving $38.9 million in aid, one of the largest allotments in Illinois. This aid represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity. If invested wisely, these funds would transform lives in our village. Regrettably, the village of Oak Park board is squandering this opportunity.
Instead of investing in our community first, the board voted to direct $14 million of our aid to fill budget gaps, which have alternative remedies. In doing so, some board members believe they are “making the village whole,” to borrow President Scaman’s words. But they are not making our villagers whole.
To address our villagers’ needs, their decision process would have to adhere to the principles of equity, community engagement, and transparency that many board members purport to champion. To date, they have not engaged the community nor held a conversation with our residents most impacted by the hardship of the last 18 months.
The board’s decision also flaunts federal guidance. The U.S. Treasury’s answers to frequently asked questions states that ARPA funds cannot be used to pay debt because debt payments do not “address the needs of pandemic response or its negative economic impacts.” Yet, the village plans to pay debt with its ARPA funds via a fund-transfer shell game that undermines the spirit and intent of the law.
The village board must seize this transformative opportunity. The remaining $24.9 million must go toward community recovery programs because we cannot recover from these crises alone. Our board must recognize our situation and partner with the community to imagine a better future. In collaboration, we can invest the remaining aid in our people and create a plan that truly makes our community whole.