Journal Opinion: Balkanizing ARP Allocations

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The city of Sharon, Pa., recently announced its city council approved $472,500 to support six businesses that are opening new locations in the city or upgrading and expanding their existing sites.

The grants, approved Oct. 19, bring to nearly $3.4 million the total awarded to Sharon businesses through the city’s share of American Rescue Plan funds. The money is supporting initiatives ranging from restaurants opening downtown to funding the aquaponic project at The Landing and new student housing to serve the Penn State Shenango campus.  

The city of Sharon is an excellent example of how local governments are using or considering how to use ARP funds to provide direct support for business. Another example is the Mahoning County revolving loan fund, administered by Valley Economic Development Partners, which recently announced it has lent more than $2 million to local businesses. 

Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown has proposed a $2 million revolving loan fund and $1 million façade program to support city businesses. On Oct. 19, legislation to appropriate those funds was jettisoned by City Council to its community planning and economic development committee. The delay reportedly resulted from disputes between the Brown administration and members of council regarding the $2 million in ARP funds designated for each of the seven wards in the city.

In other words, unless council gets what it wants, the mayor won’t get what he wants. And vice versa.

City Council allocated the ARP funds to the wards in April. So far, the board of control – made up of Brown, Law Director Jeff Limbian and Finance Director Kyle Miasek – has approved just one council-directed project.

The administration has asserted it needs more information about ward-based projects and they might not comply with federal guidelines. Members of council say the city is ignoring their requests for that information. 

We don’t doubt that council might have a better view of what might be needed in individual wards. But allocating $2 million to each ward – and giving members of council a big pot of money to pass out as they wish – contributes to the impression that ARP spending isn’t coordinated and no citywide strategic plan is in place. Indeed, it balkanizes the entire ARP allocation process.

The administration must provide council with the information it needs to ensure that spending requests comply with federal guidelines. And all city officeholders must resolve their differences and work toward approving the revolving loan and façade programs, as well as resolving disputes over ward-directed spending.

Youngstown doesn’t need to contribute to the perception of dysfunction that already surrounds the city, thanks in no small measure – fairly or not – to the city’s handling of the 20 Federal Place project and frustrations over downtown road closings.

Businesses need help, not more chaos.