DECATUR — Decatur City Council members are used to grappling with problems of how to stretch too few tax dollars to cover the city’s needs.
But their meeting Wednesday night presented them with a new and more pleasant financial conundrum: how to spend more than $458,000 of taxpayer money made available to them by the federal government for the sole purpose of helping people.
Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe had earlier suggested council members come up with their own ideas for spending the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, and got plenty of proposals: suggestions ranged from aiding the homeless to supporting local musicians and concerts and workforce retraining, all aimed at assisting lives upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As council members kicked around lots of different spending proposals at Wednesday’s meeting, they were guided by a series of recommendations from City Manager Scot Wrighton. He said areas like traditional job training and rent/utility assistance had been well-catered for in previous federal fund allocations that ran into millions of dollars.
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In fact, so much money had been set aside for these issues there were pools of funds not completely used in the Decatur area. “Amounts allocated for these purposes are not being used at rates we expected to see when approved,” said Wrighton in a report. “And there is more money still available for these same uses.”
Council members appeared to favor a series of guidelines set forth by Wrighton who suggested allocating two-thirds of the $458,000 to help citizens “retool and reset their lives” following major disruptions caused by the onset of the pandemic.
Those re-tooling ideas included funding a “Maker-Space” at Decatur Public Library that might be equipped with gear ranging from 3D printers to laser cutters and computer-controlled milling machines. The idea, said Wrighton, is to help people create their own products and learn new skills that can lead to new businesses and careers.
He also suggested funding the work of the new Shemilah Outreach Center in Decatur which plans summer work programs for city teenagers. And he floated the idea of using some of the federal cash as seed money to fund “non-traditional small business start-ups for persons idled by COVID who may be starting over.”
Council members were enthusiastic about the work of the Shemilah project, founded by bereaved Decatur father Shemuel Sanders, who lost his daughter Shemilah to gun violence. Community activist Jacob Jenkins, speaking from the meeting audience, urged the council to try to fund it, claiming it would save lives by giving teenagers paying jobs, such as mowing city yards, and keep them out of trouble.
"You have a unique opportunity to keep our streets safe by supporting youth-based summer programs," he added.
Councilman David Horn liked that idea and he also liked the Maker-Space initiative, noting Decatur now had some 2,877 people without jobs, up almost 1,500 over the beginning of 2020. "...It is critical as well that we just have to find ways to fund small start-ups... and find a way to fund entrepreneurial ventures..." he added.
Wrighton had also suggested reserving the remaining one-third of the CARES cash to handle emergency help for families such as funding food banks, transitional housing costs and even paying for crisis counseling.
Moore Wolfe especially liked that idea, saying she was worried what will happen in the wake of COVID when a moratorium on evictions is lifted. "I am very concerned that a number of people will never be able to catch up with what they owe," she said.
"And the last thing we need, especially having just gone through a really terrible few days of weather, the last thing we need is an explosion of people being kicked out on the streets with nowhere to go."
And with more federal help on the way as President Joe Biden pushes his massive new relief program through the Congress, Decatur is likely to have to find yet more ways to spend more COVID-related assistance. Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Deputy City Manager Jon Kindseth said that explained why Wrighton was trying to think outside the box and find new avenues towards channeling cash to assist the community.
“There is no shortage of worthy projects,” added Kindseth. “It’s just a matter of finding funding that is compatible with being used towards those worthy causes.”
The city’s professional staff will be drawing up guidelines for how the federal money can be spent, guidelines that have to be approved by government regulators. Kindseth said councilors will then get to discuss and have to sign off on whatever program of funding needs is finally agreed on.
Wednesday’s meeting had more good news for the city, too. Council members agreed to transfer a tract of land in the 300 block of East Wabash Avenue to Crossing Healthcare. The plan is to use the land for a more than 10,000-square-foot building that will house an outpatient treatment program to address the mental health needs of first responders and veterans. That program is being funded in part through a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
Kindseth said the growing Crossing campus and its services is a shot-in-the arm for an area of the city once lacking in investment.
“We’re certainly blessed to see that relationship between Crossing and the Howard Buffett Foundation and the city is the recipient of the good deeds being done on that campus,” Kindseth added.
In other development news, council members signed off on an agreement with Decatur Public Schools to improve sidewalks surrounding Johns Hill Park. The city and the school district will divide the $140,000 bill between them, part of a massive project supported by the Howard Buffett Foundation to upgrade and improve the entire Johns Hill neighborhood.
The council also approved an ordinance vacating the right of way of a section of North Mercer Street, just north of Eldorado Street, so that section of the road can serve as an entrance to a new parking lot for the Mueller Company.
Kindseth said the area had been rundown but a new parking lot, for one of Decatur’s growing companies, would improve the appearance of the streetscape.
Contact Tony Reid at (217) 421-7977. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyJReid