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Government & Politics

Waiting for relief: ARPA survey responses provide window into what Cleveland needs now

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Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative
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This past summer, the city of Cleveland mailed surveys to more than 120,000 homes and businesses asking residents, “How would you spend $511 million in ARPA funding to make Cleveland healthier and stronger?” The surveys were also available online.

The city received more than 1,000 responses, which it says formed the basis for its plans. However, Cleveland hasn’t held any public meetings, and so far, city council has only approved spending about half of the initial tranche of $256 million. Specifically, the council allocated $110 million in lost revenue to the city, $20 million for citywide broadband, and $5 million for the Cleveland Food Bank.

With about $121 million from the first half of the funding still to be spent, The Land and Cleveland Documenters wondered what priorities residents had for the money.

To learn what residents are thinking, the two groups put in a public records request and got close to 1,173 survey responses. (The city of Cleveland said it got 2,275 “ideas.” We don’t know where the rest are.)

A team of Documenters turned the feedback into a database. You can explore it here.

The city’s plan for the first installment of ARPA money does include some items at the top of residents’ wish lists, including demolition projects, emergency and social services, and improvements to safety, health care, and affordable housing. Yet it does not yet appear to address some of its citizens’ top priorities, including water and sewer costs and improvements to parks and other recreational spaces.

Just like the U.S. did in response to the Great Depression, Cleveland should now “use millions of dollars to fix our parks and other public works with the unemployed, and train them,” wrote a resident of Ward 16.

The comments provide a fascinating window into the visceral needs of Cleveland residents grappling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much more, they show how ARPA dollars could be targeted to help people get back on their feet.

A push to spend the money

ARPA Community Input Card RD16.png
The city of Cleveland received more than 1,000 responses to surveys mailed out to homes and businesses. After putting in a public records request, The Land and Cleveland Documenters were able to get around 1,173 out of the possible 2,274 "ideas" that the city received.

In October, Cleveland outlined how it will spend roughly the first 25 percent of the nearly $511 million awarded. As of November, the nation’s poorest major city had received about $226 million, less than half, and the rest was slated to arrive in 2022. The whole grant – the eighth largest under ARPA – must be allocated by 2024 and fully spent by 2026.

The $511 million is roughly equivalent to the city’s entire general fund and represents a significant opportunity for the city. According to the U.S. Treasury, ARPA dollars can be used to support public health responses to COVID-19; replace lost revenue for local governments; support economic stabilization for households and businesses; and address systemic public health and economic challenges.

“As the city works to develop a more detailed use of funds plan for its SLFRF (State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds) allocation, it is taking a community and resident centered approach,” the city wrote in its interim performance report. “This is a critical part of the city’s commitment to documenting and understanding neighborhood level priorities, and aligning programs and services with them as much as possible.”

City Council, meanwhile, has begun developing its own plans for spending the remainder of the first half of the funds, up to about $125 million, convening a nine-member Special Working Group for the purpose. Details of those plans have not yet been announced. Also still unclear are whether and how those plans will align with the city’s aims. A vote on a reconciliation plan is expected soon.

The public responds

The city’s survey forms asked residents to place their ideas into categories selected by the city. The online version permitted only one selection per category, while the paper edition allowed for multiple choices in each group.

Cleveland reported receiving a combined 2,275 “ideas,” or responses, less than half of one percent of the city’s population, containing a plethora of ideas, suggestions, tips, and pleas. It also received a number of complaints on topics unrelated to the purpose of ARPA funds.

Some Clevelanders, The Land and Documenters found, were grateful for the opportunity and thanked the city for taking their input. Others expressed more skeptical or even critical views, describing the survey as an empty gesture with little chance of affecting how ARPA dollars actually will be spent.

“This survey form is not helpful in soliciting serious feedback,” wrote one respondent.

“This feels like the city is simply checking the box that the public was allowed to engage in offering feedback rather than really using this as an opportunity to both solicit comprehensive feedback [and] educate residents on the transformative opportunity provided by the American Rescue Plan funding.”

Many submissions, too, contained proposals that aren’t allowed or are discouraged under ARPA guidelines. Into this category fall requests for new (not renovated) recreation or other community centers and broader eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

“It is a goal of mine and the individuals that I am associated with to build a brand new multipurpose center,” wrote a Ward 10 resident. “I am wondering if a project similar to the I Promise school built by LeBron James [in Akron] could be built here,” wrote a resident of Ward 8.

Other responses among the submissions given to The Land contain ideas that are impossible, unrealistic, or highly specific, related to one individual property.

One respondent, for instance, called for Blossom Music Center, in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, to be relocated to the Cleveland lakefront, and several residents asked for repairs to a roof, bathroom, driveway, or other feature of their own home. Another proposed simply dividing the funds equally among Cleveland’s approximately 372,000 residents.

Concrete, actionable proposals

Still, for every unrealistic proposal, there were many suggestions for actionable steps that fall well within the purview of ARPA funding. Many residents said they want to see the money spent on city services including road repair, better equipment and higher staffing for police and EMS workers, broadband infrastructure, and Cleveland’s aging water and sewer systems.

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A recurring theme was utility prices, which were recently raised again by city council.

“We need access to the internet,” said a Ward 5 resident. “Currently we have one company that has a monopoly over everyone. They make us pay unheard of prices … My grandchildren are at a disadvantage [because they] have to go to a library, when they should be able to do school at home.”

“[I]f the city doesn't have enough of the taxpayers money to repair this street [E. 106th St.] …some of the … ARPA funds should go to repairing this street as well as others that are in need around the city,” said a resident of Ward 8.

Another theme was utility prices, which have been on the rise and were recently raised again by council. “The water and sewer bills have gone out of control,” said a Ward 13 resident. “Do what you can to maintain and replace or expand physical infrastructure and start to scale down costs … get your act together.”

“Everything is old and worn out,” added a Ward 16 resident. “We cannot afford higher water and sewer bills. Our neighborhood is mostly retired and on fixed incomes. Our utility bills are too high for us to pay.”

Disparity between responses and current plans

Cleveland clearly got the message. In its summary of the survey, published in its interim performance report, the city reported that 32 percent of residents cited water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure. Indeed, that was the top priority, higher than the combined figures for recouping negative economic impacts of the pandemic and funding public health response.

And yet this top resident priority did not make the first cut, except for $20 million that the city council allocated in October for citywide broadband. In its first wave of spending plans, announced in October, the city divided $121 million between the Dept. of Public Safety; the Dept. of Community and Economic Development, Programs; and the Dept. of Building and Housing, Demolitions.

Also absent from the first allotments are improvements to city parks, playgrounds, and recreation centers, a lower but still conspicuous priority in survey results. “I feel that a good chunk of the money should go to the recreation infrastructure,” said a resident of Ward 13, calling for work on all facilities.

A spokeswoman for Cleveland did not have an answer for why the first ARPA allotments appear not to address these concerns.

Areas of alignment, and what’s next

Still, Cleveland is not deaf to its residents. Much of the first ARPA allotment does indeed align with the public’s wishes as expressed in survey results.

Many of the survey responses seen by The Land and Documenters call for the demolition of abandoned properties throughout the city, which the city is planning. A higher number also expresses a desire for investment in police and emergency medical response forces, another area where the city is taking action.

“It would be great if some of the money could be used to help bring the rundown areas up[,] to have all areas presentable,” said a Ward 1 resident. “EMS needs almost all the restructuring it can get,” said another, one of several messages with detailed suggestions regarding EMS pay and equipment.

ARPA Community Input Card RD15.png
Many responses asked for funding to repair roofs and plumbing in their own homes. One response mentioned senior citizens on fixed incomes who were property owners and needed financial assistance in repairs and rehabs to their homes.

“We need more police officers,” wrote a Ward 12 resident. “We need to know that if we call it doesn't take an hour for the police to come because they are spread so thin. Families are not going to want to live or stay in the city without feeling safe!”

In alignment with these requests, the city’s first allotment includes $26 million for public safety, including $10 million specifically for the division of police, and $15 million for demolition projects. In addition, $80 million to the Dept. of Community and Economic Development will be used for senior home repair, lead safe housing fund grants, affordable housing redevelopment, and emergency food assistance.

“I myself am most concerned about senior citizens on fixed incomes who are property owners and really need financial help to repair and rehab our homes,” said a Ward 2 resident.

In all these areas, said a Ward 13 resident, it’s not enough to throw money at the problem or only hire field agents. “They [also] need the support staff to make it happen efficiently and to respond to residents’ inquiries and complaints, to organize and prioritize requests … serving the public.”

The Jackson administration and the city council are currently hashing out how to spend the ARPA funds to address the hopes and concerns of residents. While they’re currently debating the first half of the funding, another $256 million will arrive in June of next year.

Also on the horizon is a change of administration. The ARPA plans announced so far came together under the aegis of the outgoing administration. Mayor-elect Justin Bibb, who campaigned on a platform of change, takes office next year. He and his team may go about the business of responding to public input differently.

Meanwhile, the city council continues to debate the administration’s plans and try to reconcile them with their own. With just three council meetings remaining this year, the Jackson administration has been pushing for council to pass legislation, yet not all members are in agreement. Some support passing only pieces they can agree on, such as the administration’s public safety spending plan.

“I hope that we get to a point to actually vote on something,” said Ward 6 council member Blaine Griffin, chair of the Public Safety Committee, at a recent meeting of the Development, Planning and Sustainability Committee in which the administration’s and council’s plans were debated. “And let’s keep in mind, ladies and gentlemen, that we’ve got $255 million coming next year. At the rate we’re going, we’re going to have to start having conversations on that now.”

This story is a part of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative’s Making Ends Meet project. NEO SoJo is composed of 18-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including [partner’s name]. Zachary Lewis is a contributor to The Land and Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.