Columbia residents, advocates and community organizations demonstrated outside the Daniel Boone City Building on Tuesday, urging for a more robust research and public input process to decide how the city will spend $25 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds.
For the hour before a regular Columbia City Council meeting that included a hearing on the Fiscal Year 2022 budget, the crowd organized by People Before Projects raised concerns about “who the funds will be spent for” and “how the council will decide where they’re allocated.”
“The stakes are high,” Columbia resident and People Before Projects organizer Susan Maze said prior to the rally. “These are historic levels of funding, giving us an unprecedented opportunity to fund issues that the council hasn’t prioritized in the past because the city has said there hasn’t been enough funding for them.”
Maze and members at the rally raised issues such as affordable housing, services for the unsheltered population, mental health, climate change and community violence — as they have been during budget work sessions throughout the summer. They complained that this has been the only avenue for public input to date.
A passionate crowd of around 40 residents attended the rally, brandishing signs with catchy slogans and expository pamphlets. One sign, held by Columbia resident Jan Weaver, read, “Show us the needs before you tie up the seeds,” a reference to the need for thorough research before allocating the funds.
“We’re just saying ‘Wait, don’t tie up the funds before we have all the information,’” she said.
The original budget plan proposed by City Manager John Glascock in July suggested allocating $10 million in ARPA funds to broadband and smaller sums up to $3 million each to stormwater, mental health, homeless shelters, the task force on community violence and workforce development.
Mayor Brian Treece said during the council meeting that the ARPA funds listed were merely proposals for discussion and were not included in the budget at this time.
Treece has said the selection of projects is based on staff recommendations and a citizen satisfaction survey from 2019. The remaining funds are set aside for now without specific details.
People Before Projects is advocating for all ARPA funds to be set aside for decision after a more thorough research and public-input process, Maze said.
“That original survey was conducted before COVID-19, before the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd and before we received this funding,” said Maze. “The city of Columbia is in a different situation than it was in 2019.”
In a letter to constituents Monday, council member Ian Thomas said he supports placing all $25 million into a separate fund for a more rigorous decision process that includes the public and amplifies the stories of those most impacted by the pandemic and the trauma of economic inequality. Council members Pat Fowler and Andrea Waner have also expressed general support for changing the allocation of ARPA funds.
During the council meeting, staff amendments to the budget were passed, including adding funding for the Health Department to hire 17 new staff members to assist with the city's response to the delta variant.
The council also discussed other amendments to the budget, including whether to extend the hazard pay amendment to other workers, adding an additional diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator, funding sources for expanding the sports field house and funding for VIDWEST media.
The discussion led to fervent debate among council members and the mayor over the ARPA proposals. At one point, Treece proposed asking Glascock and his staff to start planning about $9.5 million in spending to address homelessness, mental health, workforce development and community violence, but no consensus emerged and no vote was taken.
“It’s time we use this money to interrupt structural inequality,” said Columbia citizen and Child Protective Services worker Chimene Schwach, who spoke at the rally. Schwach said it is unclear what data was used to propose these projects and decide the levels of funds.
Schwach and President of Race Matters, Friends Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, who also spoke at the rally, said their concern is that these spending decisions were made without the solicitation of input from vulnerable populations who are most affected.
Love Columbia Director Jane Williams said she’s not opposed to broadband — one of the spending areas in the original budget proposal — especially since, during the pandemic, people without stable internet struggled with remote work and school.
“There are other sources for broadband and stormwater projects,” she said, referring to the $1 trillion infrastructure bill passed by the U.S. Senate in August. “What’s on my mind is finding ways to build pathways to permanent housing for our unhoused populations.”
Boone County will also receive $35 million of ARPA funding. People Before Projects also plans to advocate for public input and thorough research in determining the allocation of that money.
Many of those attending the rally remained for the City Council meeting, which included the second of three public hearings on the city’s proposed budget for FY2022. That hearing included a variety of local residents advocating for specific changes to proposed spending plans.
Activist Roy Lovelady urged the council to come down from their platforms, reach out to all constituents and listen to Black and brown voices who've been most impacted by the pandemic.