Oak Park’s village board is no closer to understanding the community’s wishes for expenditure of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding after a survey meant to gauge public opinion yielded an insufficient response. With $38.9 million on the table and a strong desire for citizen input from the board, only about 200 people participated in the online survey.

 The board discussed the results of the survey during its Nov. 15 meeting, although the survey remains open on the village’s website. Early results indicate that respondents ranked supporting populations’ access to public health services and expansion of mental health services as top priorities for federal COVID relief spending. However, the board believed the number of respondents too few to adequately measure community appetite.

“This is not even statistically significant in my mind,” Trustee Ravi Parakkat said. “This is a huge sum of money that we’re trying to make a decision around.”

The results of the survey were validated by those who opted to send comments and suggestions regarding ARPA funding to the village email address created specifically for that purpose. Only 15 to 20 people sent emails.

When asked how these survey results compare to those of previous surveys, Interim Village Manager Lisa Shelley said survey outreach is typically done online, with the exception of the Oak Park citizens survey. The village pays for that survey to be conducted due to it being much larger and takes much longer than other outreach initiatives.

The cost of conducting the Oak Park citizen survey comes in at about $10,000, according to Shelley, who offered to have staff look into the potential cost and impacts of conducting the COVID relief funding survey similarly.

The $10,000 price was a worthy investment, Parakkat believed, if that amount  resulted in a higher rate of responses from members of the community, considering the huge sum of ARPA funds at stake.

“Two hundred [respondents] does not cut it for me,” he said.

The village is only able to use its $38.9 million toward four areas specified under the act: supporting urgent COVID-19 response efforts, replacing lost governmental revenues, supporting economic stabilization, and addressing systemic public health and economic challenges that have contributed to the pandemic’s inequal impact on citizens.

Whether a paid survey could generate a markedly higher citizen participation was not made clear. Village President Vicki Scaman, who had the results of the 2017 citizens survey on hand, told the board that it had fewer than 500 respondents, despite it being paid.

Still, the population sample of 200 was viewed with skepticism from the board.

Trustee Jim Taglia felt the federal relief funding survey results offered a potentially skewed assessment of the wider community’s views. A small group of people could have “piled on” comments, he said, which would make the results appear as though they indicated the inclinations of the entire community. He cautioned the board to behave carefully.

Trustee Susan Buchanan was also among those who found 200 respondents insufficient. She believed the results of the survey should not be viewed as a reflection of the desires of the entire community as a whole.

“We’re going to have to use it as more of an idea generator,” said Buchanan.  “We can’t allocate money based on the will of 200 people.”

While Scaman suggested cultivating input through focus groups and the village’s citizen commissions as possible methods to gather more information on which to base relief fund allocation, the board made no motion to direct staff.

As the end of the year nears, the window of opportunity to gain public input for ARPA spending narrows. The village must have its entire $38.9 million share of ARPA funds committed for spending by Dec. 31, 2024 and spent in full by Dec. 31, 2026.

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