Opinion: How cities are using citizen feedback to spend relief funds

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Along the way, they’re trying to make sure every voice is heard.

The American Rescue Plan is delivering an unprecedented $350 billion in direct aid to state and local governments across the country, and the sheer size of their share has many leaders overwhelmed.

The spending possibilities are vast – from affordable housing to substance abuse treatment to rental assistance. Prioritizing where the aid can have the most impact is a big job. So, some places are seeking help in a grassroots way: They’re asking their constituents how they’d like to see the money spent.

“We really wanted to understand how the community was thinking in terms of investment versus recovery,” said Dana Wedeles, the special assistant to the city manager in Alexandria, Va. “Usually when we do something new, I like to look and see what other jurisdictions have done. But we’re all going through this at the same time – we’re building the plane as we fly it.”

Alexandria, which will receive about $60 million in aid, is one of several cities surveying residents. Other cities include Lompoc, Calif., Flint, Mich., Bellaire Village and Mansfield City, Ohio; and Charleston, W.V., to name a few.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Cities are using the information they receive to categorize and score residents’ priorities.

Feedback from these efforts has been relatively predictable in that it has lined up with what officials have seen so far during the pandemic. Priority areas in some communities include job skills and training, small businesses and housing. Behavioral health-care needs are also a priority.

The value of surveying, said Nick Mastronardi, the CEO of Polco, the online civic engagement platform that conducts an ongoing National Community Survey, is that it provides insight into which areas of investment would have the most meaning for residents.

“So many places are being hit in different ways,” he said. “For some, public health is the top concern, for others it’s small business and for still others it is racial disparities.

“And then within those categories it can be different between demographics. It’s really important that communities understand where the pandemic has most impacted people’s lives.”

Officials are also finding new ideas and areas of specific concerns.

In Alexandria, for example, one resident survey respondent outlined the need for more dental care in low-income neighborhoods.

That was a use of federal money the city hadn’t examined, and it’s now a proposal the city is considering, Wedeles said.

In Charleston, a community focus group meeting in the East End, one of two neighborhoods where most of the city’s Black residents live, had a long discussion centered on food insecurity and a lack of grocery stores.

The city, which is getting nearly $37 million in aid, is considering how to incorporate suggestions from that meeting to expand a food co-op in the East End and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to farmers markets.

“Most people had really specific ideas and thoughts,” said Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin. “It’s difficult to go out and ask everyone what their ideas are and still manage expectations. But I’m not sure we would have captured as many good and creative ideas as we have.”

The approach with the American Rescue Plan aid is a markedly different one than most places took last year with the federal funding provided under the coronavirus relief law known as the CARES Act.

This is due to a number of factors.

For one, when the pandemic hit, it quickly upended lives, jobs and the economy, and governments needed a financial rescue just to respond to the immediate economic and public health crisis.

At the same time, fewer governments received direct aid from the CARES Act; it was limited to states and larger localities. Those that did get funding initially had only about eight months to spend it, although Congress later extended that deadline by a year, to December 2021.

The American rescue Plan money is more than twice that of the CARES Act, and small-to-mid-size cities, such as Alexandria and Charleston, are receiving direct deposits for the first time.

They’ll also have over three years – until the end of 2024 – to allocate the money.

But there are always risks when gathering community input.

Chief among them is that the responses received won’t represent the full demographics of the community.

To ensure they are getting the full breadth of their communities, cities have not only created multiple channels for input, but they are also releasing information in multiple languages and asking trusted partners in hard-to-reach communities for help in outreach.

The results are also weighted by demographics.

While the process for cities like Alexandria and Charleston has been labor intensive, city officials feel as if it’s been well worth the time. Not only will the resident input inform their decisions regarding federal aid, but it is also valuable data for city budgeting in general.

Goodwin said that it’s helping Charleston develop the blueprint for the city’s recovery plan and she would like to do something like this again.

“We do a really good job of getting folks who are professionals to come in and tell us what we need,” she said. “But I don’t think there’s any substitute for looking someone in the eye as we did and listening and learning from them.”

Liz Farmer writes for Route Fifty, a digital news publication that aims to connect the people and ideas advancing state, county and municipal government across the United States. This story is part of the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It originally appeared here.