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'We're not Santa Claus': Everyone wants a piece of Cincinnati's $292M COVID relief fund

Cincinnati City Hall
Posted at 3:45 PM, Apr 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-12 18:05:08-04

CINCINNATI — After weeks of speculation and sweeping proposals from city leaders on how to spend hundreds of millions in anticipated federal COVID-19 relief funding, residents had their first chance to weigh in Monday afternoon.

One thing quickly became clear: Everybody wants of piece of this $292-million pie.

Roughly 80 people signed up to speak via video conference call during Monday afternoon's hearing of City Council's Budget and Finance Committee. Most were with big-name organizations like the Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Flying Pig Marathon and others.

Fewer were ordinary, everyday residents or neighborhood representatives, which gave some committee members pause.

"We as Council have to do our job, our due diligence and to really be inclusive of everyone," said Councilman Greg Landsman, questioning how much neighborhood and community engagement took place before the administration and Mayor John Cranley began unveiling their recommendations.

"So we’re going to have to work a lot harder to get more and more folks engaged," he said.

Releasing memos and holding news conferences about how the city could spend the COVID-19 relief money created confusion among city residents who now might think that money's all spoken for, Landsman worried.

"The administration and the mayor have put out their proposal, and I think what has confused folks is that this is a done deal... it's already spent," Landsman said Monday. "So the folks that have engaged are folks that have primarily, are in what the administration and the mayor put in front of folks."

In the weeks following the American Recovery Plan Act's passage early last month, the city manager has released two memos outlining possible uses for the funding, which includes a number of capital projects put forward by Cranley, including money to bring back the popular arts and light festival, BLINK, funding for arts programs, new recreational facilities and a years-anticipated trail project along the Ohio River.

Councilman Steve Goodin said the process "needs to be slowed way down," comparing it to a reality game show.

"It feels a bit like the TV show 'Shark Tank.' Everyone is coming in with a two-minute pitch, and we're not Santa Claus. We need to be very thoughtful about how we spend this money, and I think we need to slow this down."

For Landsman, without hearing from more neighborhood residents and small-business owners, City Council won't know how best to use the money toward actual COVID relief that will help families.

"It's a lot about our small businesses, about the barriers to work and what the average family is dealing with, but we won't fundamentally understand exactly where we need to invest these dollars until we hear from everyone, and that's going to take months, not weeks," Landsman said.

City officials expect to begin seeing that money allocated by May 11. City Council has until June 30 to finalize its budget for the next fiscal year.

Councilman and committee chair David Mann launched an online survey where people who do not wish to speak to the committee directly still can voice their opinions.