The Federal Aid Windfall is not a Political Slush Fund: Here’s Why the Smart Move from Local Leaders Right Now is Patience

Local leaders all over the country—Republican and Democrats—are elated by the eye-popping federal aid awards included in Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.

As reported previously here at The Bridge, the City of Binghamton is slated to receive about $48 million, and the Town of Union is in line for $32 million.

The U.S. Treasury is required to send half of the award amount by May 10 for most cities, and the second half will be wired in May 2022.

Some mayors are urging patience, given the funds can help with recovery efforts through December 2024. It’s a really smart move.

Other mayors are already drooling over the award, eyeing it like one big slush fund to advance pet projects and cement political legacies.

In a recent Press and Sun article, Binghamton Mayor Rich David, who is term-limited and serving his final nine months in office, said he wants to move fast, and lock-up the funds so a “future administration just doesn’t come in and squander the federal money.”  He also shared his priorities: water lines, sewer lines, broadband, and the water plant.

Not inspiring stuff.

For tenants, homeowners, workers, small business owners, and families who just suffered 15 months of unprecedented trauma, I imagine the Mayor’s comments fell flat.

Far too many of our friends, families, and neighbors are struggling, and local leaders must center their needs first with this one-time infusion of recovery dollars.

But I have to be honest: there’s no reason to move lightning fast on doling out dollars to help people, households, workers, and businesses, either.

Whether the mayor of Binghamton or Birmingham, I would argue there is a critical need to pause right now. Here’s three reasons why:

  1. This money can be used through 2024, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime investment from the federal government, and we need to make it count. Our investment decisions must center those in need, but do it in a way that advances equity, results in more vibrant and inclusive neighborhoods, and builds a healthier and more resilient Binghamton.
  2. To immediately commit portions of this recovery award to infrastructure projects is short-sighted. President Biden and the U.S. Congress are currently working on what could be a $3 trillion infrastructure bill, with bipartisan support of most items, which would represent another massive infusion of federal investments to local, county, and state governments across the country. It makes no sense to waste flexible recovery dollars—meant to help folks, homes, businesses, workers, and neighborhoods recover from the harm and trauma caused by the pandemic—on sidewalks, roads, and sewer lines when these projects will be the very focus of the forthcoming infrastructure spending bill.
  3. Finally, there IS SO MUCH MONEY committed in the American Rescue Plan to help individuals, families, homes, businesses, and workers recover, it seems only responsible to wait a few months to see how some of these resources will trickle down into local communities. It may be worth creating a small “Recovery Team” to help local folks in need connect with and tap these different resources. It may be worth waiting to see where the gaps are—or where the disparities emerge—and then direct this flexible local recovery award accordingly. Again: in a way that advances equity, results in more vibrant and inclusive neighborhoods, and builds a healthier and more resilient Binghamton.

It’s worth unpacking this last point just a bit. For example (and all dollar amounts below represent items included in Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, unless noted otherwise):

We need to help Binghamton restaurants! I agree, but there is $25 billion committed for a new program dedicated exclusively to providing grants to restaurants.

We need to help Binghamton music venues, theaters, and museums! I agree, but there was $15 billion included specifically for these venues in the December 2020 relief bill, which has yet to be fully rolled out.

We need to help Binghamton tenants and small mom and pop landlords! I agree, but the December 2020 relief bill included $25 billion in emergency rental assistance (ERA), and the American Rescue Plan awarded another $21.5 billion to these rental assistance programs. Binghamton and Broome were too small to receive direct awards, so local tenants and landlords will need to apply to NYS’s program—which announced last week that more than $3 billion is now available.

We need to help Binghamton homeowners! I agree, but $9.9 billion is allocated to the Homeowners Assistance Fund, and will help with direct grants to cover overdue mortgage, insurance, and tax payments.

We need to help Binghamton workers! I agree, but the enhanced unemployment benefits were extended, paid leave will be covered for COVID-19 related absences, and COBRA payments for unemployed workers will be fully subsidized.

We need to help Binghamton income-constrained families and single mothers! I agree, but the bill significantly expands the child tax credit, continues the SNAP enhancements, and boosts WIC vouchers.

We need to help Binghamton childcare providers and educators! I agree, but the bill sets aside $123 billion for K-12 education, $40 billion to childcare providers, and $1 billion for Head Start programs.

We need to help Binghamton residents struggling with mental health and substance use! I agree, but the bill includes just under $4 billion for emergency funding for mental health and substance use through a variety of programs and block grants to states and counties.

And there’s much more.

I’m pretty sure none of these individual allocations will fully meet the needs of all Americans, but it’s a massive infusion of resources that will accelerate a recovery—and an equitable recovery where dedicated leaders think creatively and intentionally.

My point, though, is that many different tranches of funding will be diverted to multiple levels of government and through various institutional partners, which will make coordination important and patience critical.

For these reasons, the most important steps government leaders at the state, county, and local levels can take right now are to build a robust network for communication and collaboration so duplication is minimized and strategic investments are optimized.

What might that look like? Well, some suggestions:

  1. State leaders here in New York could formally suspend the “Hunger Games” and instead use the Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs), which already include many key institutional partners, to communicate with county and local leaders on a real-time basis what pots of funding the state has, how and when they will roll out the programs, eligibility, etc. These meetings should be open to the public, and recorded and made available online.
  2. County leaders could immediately convene “Equitable Recovery Task Forces” that are inclusive and expansive so there’s ongoing opportunities to build a common understanding of the resources available, identify gaps in recovery needs, and explore creative and impactful collaborations.
  3. Local leaders could immediately build the capacity and internal infrastructure in order to gather information from landlords, tenants, small businesses, and nonprofits to better understand the hyperlocal needs and feed this information up to both the County Task Forces and the REDCs. (The good ones have already been doing this.) To ensure this process is inclusive and reaches deeper into the communities that were most harmed, local leaders could offer capacity grants to community nonprofits and neighborhood organizations, valuing them as genuine partners in gathering this critical information.

The American Rescue Plan is massive but needed. In order to maximize its promise and ensure an equitable recovery, the level of coordination and collaboration needed will be challenging and somewhat exhausting. Duplication and waste will be inevitable, but it can be minimized, and I am certain some local and county leaders will build a legacy of excellence.

At the same time, I’m not surprised at all that some mayors, who have never prioritized this inclusive, collaborative approach and who care instead for easy wins, are already talking about directing this once-in-a-lifetime investment of flexible federal recovery funds to unimaginative projects. Like sewer lines and water plant upgrades.

We can do so much better. We must.


Tarik Abdelazim currently works for a national nonprofit that helps communities address systemic vacancy and disinvestment in support of equitable development, and previously served as the Director of Planning Housing and Community Development for the City of Binghamton. He is a frequent contributor to The Bridge.

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