SCHENECTADY – Council President John Mootooveren said he’s concerned that other communities are “way ahead” of the Electric City in planning to spend coronavirus relief funding.
Mootooveren and Council member Marion Porterfield co-sponsored the lone agenda item on the City Council’s Finance Committee meeting Monday night, which calls for the council to discuss dates, times and location for public hearings on spending the city’s $53 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money, which was announced in March.
The American Rescue Plan includes $350 billion for eligible state, local, territorial, and tribal governments to respond to the COVID-19 emergency and restore jobs.
According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, recipients can use the money to support public health expenditures, address negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency, replace lost public sector revenue, provide premium pay for essential workers, and invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
To date, public discussion about local plans for the money have been limited. Last month, Mayor Gary McCarthy said that the money would likely be spent on infrastructure, although decisions would await additional federal dictate.
In the meantime, Mootooveren has called for the city to form a committee comprised of neighborhood leaders, the City Council and the administration to weigh in on what to do with the money.
“People have reached out to us wanting to know what happened, why are we taking so long to come up with forming a group to discuss our plan of how the mayor and the council is going to spend this money,” Mootooveren said Sunday, adding that he has not called for a task force.
“It’s very important that we hear from the public and what they would like.”
Mootooveren said he, too, is concerned about the timeline.
“We have the money. We don’t need to sit on the money, and we should discuss it with relevant stakeholders and come up with a game plan on how we need to spend this money, to benefit the entire city,” Mootooveren said. “And everybody should be involved. They shouldn’t be a selective group or individual. Everybody should play a meaningful part in discussing the way forward of how we spend this money.”
Mootooveren said he didn’t want to offer any preliminary ideas for spending priorities.
“I’m not going to speculate or throw things out there,” he said. “I want to give (the public) an opportunity to come to us, tell us what they would like, and then the council and the mayor and his staff will discuss and look at things that are needed.”
Other municipalities and cities are ahead of Schenectady in this regard, Mootooveren said.
“Some of them have already hired a consultant to help them formulate a plan,” he said, noting the city of Kingston’s work in that realm. “But we can catch up and engage all these people and move forward.”
The city has already received about half of the money in an unrestricted manner. The other half is expected to come next year. It is unknown if the second will arrive in an unrestricted format, according to McCarthy.
Asked about criticism about the city’s wait-and-see approach, McCarthy said:
“My record here, in terms of financial management, is I’ll match it against any mayor in the state. We’ve cut taxes, increased values, we’ve got economic development that other communities are envious of. And we’re approaching this in the same methodical way, looking at the options.”
For instance, McCarthy said Congress is presently considering a separate infrastructure bill, a priority of President Joe Biden’s administration.
The mayor said the city doesn’t want to foster duplication of effort by spending ARPA funding for infrastructure projects if Congress follows through on the separate infrastructure package.
The mayor said he’s been in contact with Schenectady County Manager Rory Fluman about setting up meetings for community input next month, perhaps some time after Labor Day.
Already, the city has spent about $50,000 of the ARPA funding for summer programs.
“As things come up, we’re dealing with them,” McCarthy said. “But the other projects … It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you don’t want to act in a hasty manner, and you don’t want to do something that, when you look at in retrospect, there were other options, and we could have used state money or we could have used other federal money.
“Also, how do we partner with the county and the school district to do some of the things that are complementary to what they will be doing, or they’re going to complement what we’re doing,” McCarthy said.
The mayor is required to submit a budget to the City Council by Oct. 1, at which time McCarthy said he would like to have a game plan for the ARPA funding.
McCarthy said he’s looking to form advisory committees for how to spend the money.
“I look forward to working with the council on this end, to put in place a package that the city will be proud of,” he said.