The Oak Park Village Board of Trustees fielded six immediate requests for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from community partner organizations, but trustee bewilderment over what in fact they were expected to do that evening overshadowed the proposals. The unease was noted by Collaboration for Early Childhood Executive Director John Borrero, one of the presenters.

“I’m sorry we’re presenting amid this confusion. I don’t think anyone wants to go right now,” said Borrero at the Jan. 31 meeting.

Confusion was immediately expressed by three trustees who wished to be provided with a rubric for assessing the requests, which spanned from $100,000 to fund public art in the North Avenue District to $2 million to replenish the park district’s capital improvement budget. The six requests together total $6 million.

Village President Vicki Scaman explained that the board would not be voting to enter into any financial contracts or funding agreements that night but would merely give feedback and direction to the groups putting requests forward for a share of the village’s $38.1 million ARPA allotment, but that explanation did little to clarify things for the trustees.

“How do we really prioritize if we have to choose?” asked Trustee Ravi Parakkat, who suggested having staff create an impact scorecard.

 Trustees Arti Walker-Peddakotla and Lucia Robinson echoed Parakkat, with Walker-Peddakotla asking for an equity impact assessment so the board could view requests “with a racial equity perspective.” Robinson said she wanted a “roadmap” with requests grouped by demographics that would benefit or what programs are in danger of ending if the ARPA requests were not be granted.

The board was generally receptive to the requests, believing them all worthy causes. However, no formal agreements were made.

In addition to the Park District of Oak Park and the North Avenue District, the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation (OPEDC) and Hephzibah Children’s Association were among the organizations that submitted a proposal. OPEDC is requesting $500,000 to start a grant process to grow and support Black-owned small businesses, while Hephzibah is asking for $525,000 to support its after-school daycare program and critical comprehensive therapy for severely traumatized children, among other programming.

Two requests were made on behalf of groups of partnering community organizations. The Collaboration for Early Childhood’s proposal combines requests from early childhood educators, as well as nonprofits that cater to young children or families with young children. New Moms, Easter Seals, Wonder Works Children’s Museum, and the Children’s Home and Aid Society are among the organizations listed in the proposal. The Collaboration for Early Childhood’s proposal requests a total of $1.1 million to be disbursed over a period of four years.

The second joint proposal seeks ARPA funds to boost the village’s tourism and hospitality industry, which took a major hit with the rise of COVID-19. The proposal is a combined effort by Visit Oak Park, Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, the Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation and the Oak Park Area Arts Council. Dubbed the “Oak Park Tourism Recovery Initiative,” the proposal appeals for a total of $765,000 in ARPA funds split among the organizations. Some of that money would be disbursed over a period of two years.

The federal recovery funds cannot be spent willy-nilly. The U.S. Department of the Treasury restricts avenues of spending. ARPA cannot be applied toward pension funds, debt services payments, lawsuit settlements or to offset tax cuts. The funds can go toward replacement of public sector revenue lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the park district’s request falls under.

ARPA funds can also be used for responding to the continued COVID-19 public health emergency or addressing its negative economic impacts, such as assistance
to households, small businesses, and nonprofits. It can also aid impacted industries such as tourism, travel, and hospitality.

Steve Drazner, the village of Oak Park’s chief financial officer, told Wednesday Journal “at least a couple” of the requests made by community partners will likely fall under those spending guidelines, but the village is still in the process of determining that.

All ARPA funds must be committed for spending by 2024 and spent in full by 2026. The village has already used $14.1 million to replace lost revenues.

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