Two members of the Fort Wayne City Council have asked colleagues to slow down before earmarking more than $30 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds while they finalize the 2022 city budget today.
The council will review a list of proposed budget cuts before adopting the 2022 budget at a 5:30 p.m. meeting. The council members' proposed cuts add up to more than $37 million of the $294 million in the proposed city budget, but about $30 million of those cuts represent a delay in appropriating funds the council still looks forward to using.
Fort Wayne received half of its $50.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds this year. The federal government has said the funds can be used in four categories: to respond to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, provide hazard pay for eligible workers, replace revenue affected by the pandemic, and make needed investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.
The council passed an ordinance this year that requires at least 5% of the funds be used for hazard pay and at least 20% be used in each of the three other categories. Garry Morr, city controller, said the proposed budget was based on the percentages in the ordinance, but the city does not have a plan for how to use the funds.
Cuts proposed by Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, and Paul Ensley, R-1st, leave the hazard pay money in the budget, along with funding for the city's consultants, but remove the $10,163,065 that would go to the other three categories. The city has a specific plan for hazard pay, Ensley said, but it doesn't have specific plans for the rest of the funds.
Ensley said he didn't want to essentially “write a $30 million blank check.” He added there's “no reason why we have to appropriate $30 million at this time that we don't know how it is going to be spent.”
All relief funds will have to be appropriated before council can approve spending them. Jehl said he doesn't expect the city to spend funds without council approval, but the cut would ensure that.
“Ultimately,” Jehl said, “it's just important to set up an accountable and transparent system of those funds, especially because they are so large.”
Jehl suggested most of the more than 50 proposed cuts that the council will discuss today.
“With record revenue and record spending, it's easy to pack in some expenditures that are wants rather than needs,” he said.
Jehl has proposed cutting money from certain places because it could be funded elsewhere, such as $600,000 in local income tax funds for Science Central because the nonprofit could qualify for American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Some cuts were made because the requests were already appropriated last year, Jehl said. Others were made to get answers for questions or to improve service the city is receiving from a particular department.
Jehl has proposed a $140,000 cut from Community Development for the city's portion of the Department of Planning Services director's salary. Planning Services, which is a city-county department, has been neglecting the city and Community Development for a long time, Jehl said.
The department is looking for a new director, so Jehl saw an opportunity.
“I would expect to restore that (cut) once we have a new understanding of better performance,” he said.
Ensley and Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, D-6th, are making a similar statement with a $150,000 cut to the Public Works budget for salaries. The council does not have oversight over the Solid Waste Department's budget, so Ensley and Tucker proposed the cut to Public Works, which Ensley said is “next on the chain of command.”
Solid Waste has been under fire recently after Red River Waste Solutions, the city's trash hauler, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this month. The City Council and residents have complained of missed collections since a few months after Red River took over the city's trash needs in 2018.
“It is frankly a cut to voice our dissatisfaction and exercise the power of the purse over the Solid Waste Department that we do not have direct budgetary oversight over,” Ensley said.
Based on state law, the council must approve the city's budget by Oct. 31.