The merits and quality of Wausau’s projects approved for ARPA funding and the process to do so figured prominently during a debate on funding for a relatively low cost project on Tuesday.
City Council members debated whether to approve a request for $34,000 from the American Rescue Plan Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds for a project on homebuyer education counseling and closing cost assistance. The request for the federal grants on pandemic recovery, popularly known as ARPA funds, has been used to support a number of projects in the city, from changing LED lighting to skate park to funding firefighters.
But the discussion soon focused on some of the projects already approved for ARPA funding, who can make recommendations and whether a small group of alders were ultimately making the funding decisions.
Dist. 6 Alder Becky McElhaney, who is also Council President, questioned the approved ARPA funds and the millions of dollars already appropriated. Gary Gisselman, of Dist. 5, said that while the discussion centered on a specific proposal, the issue is larger than a single project. That, he said, requires “a larger discussion with regard to how we go forward with ARPA funds.”
“Most of this has been coming from the finance office or the Finance Committee but I think we have to give opportunities for these ARPA funds to other council members who may have ideas,” he said, adding that some council members and the community had no opportunity to present ideas about projects that impacted community. “We should hear them out before the money is gone. We haven’t been able to listen to the community.”
Gisselman suggested holding a Committee of the Whole, or COW, meeting to chart a course on ARPA funding requests.
But his assertion was challenged by Dist. 7 Alder Lisa Rasmussen, who chairs the Finance Committee.
“All of the Finance Committee meetings are open public meetings,” Rasmussen said. “Every single council member is welcome to attend our meetings. They are welcome to offer input and feedback, they are welcome to interact with us whether or not they are voting member of the committee.”
Rasmussen then laid out the ARPA funding request process. “Every month we have ARPA as a standing item on our agenda and we rank and score every one of those requests.”
The Council put a pause on ranking and scoring requests for funds temporarily, Rasmussen said. She added that at a retreat two weeks ago, which was held without a detailed agenda, the alders “recognized as a group that we know we are going to have some type of deficit on long-term PFAS water solution.”
Rasmussen suggested her colleagues bring ideas to department heads, besides attending Finance Committee meeting to offer ideas. “We will certainly consider ideas and requests, but right now we have talked putting a little bit of hold on some of that.”
Alder Doug Diny also suggested holding a meeting of the COW to “get some readjust on our trajectory on this ARPA process.”
Mayor Katie Rosenberg said a COW meeting could be held if council members want it.
“We have had listening sessions too about ARPA and we have a couple of ideas,” Rosenberg said.