During its Tuesday meeting, the Columbus City Council earmarked $1.3 million of its $5.6 in American Recovery Plan Act allocation to provide one-time $5,000 stipends to city employees. At roughly the same time, the Starkville Board of Aldermen presented its plans for spending its $6.4 million ARPA allocation, directing most ($5.5 million) to its parks.
The action taken by the council differs from that taken by the aldermen in one important way: The money set aside by the council was not a binding decision.
Mayor Keith Gaskin, city attorney Jeff Turnage and some members of the council said a decision on the proposal, presented by Ward 4 councilman Pierre Beard, should wait until it is vetted by the consultant it plans to hire to help advise the city on how to effectively and legally spend the funds.
Even if Columbus were to proceed with the employment supplement presented Tuesday, more than 75 percent of its ARPA funds would still be available for other qualifying uses.
Providing stipends may be permissible under the federal guidelines, and some cities have already announced plans to use funds to provide one-time bonuses/supplemental pay or permanent pay raises for their employees.
According to the ARPA guidelines, essential workers are “those workers needed to maintain continuity of operations of essential critical infrastructure sectors and additional sectors as each Governor of a State or territory, each Tribal government, may designate as critical to protect the health and well-being of the residents of their State, territory, or Tribal government.”
Although not mentioned in the definition, another portion of the guidelines appears to include local government employees as qualified essential workers.
But there is enough ambiguity to warrant caution, Turnage advised the council.
In his proposal Beard suggested a one-time $5,000 bonus, but again there was some discussion as to how many of the city’s employees would be eligible under ARPA’s “essential worker” designation.
Because the motion was presented as an earmark rather than an official designation of funds, Tuesday’s action is essentially an idea about how the funds should be used.
We find no fault in the city’s action. In fact, there was much to like about it.
The city council was right in deciding to delay any final decisions about how to spend the funds until a consultant is hired. Ideally, the consultant will provide the city options, help the city determine what projects do or do not quality and deal with any stipulations or “red tape” that might emerge.
But we do not feel there is any harm at all in the council presenting ideas at this point. In fact, brainstorming a “wish list” of projects may not be a bad idea. While the consultant will provide guidance, ultimately the council will determine how the funds are spent.
We believe presenting and debating ideas about possible uses of the ARPA funds during council meetings are good exercises as long as those ideas are subject to vetting by the consultant the city chooses to hire. Discussing possible uses of the money in an open forum such as the council meetings provides the public with a chance to see what direction the council may be headed and offer their support or objections.
We don’t see a downside to that.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.