Journal Opinion: Target Relief Funds Wisely

The decision by Youngstown officials to repay $4.4 million to its water, wastewater and environmental sanitation funds is regrettable and, at this point, unavoidable. The state auditor ruled the city improperly used those funds to support economic development projects, primarily downtown and near Youngstown State University.

We have previously expressed our disagreement with the auditor’s ruling. Prominent among the landscape-changing investments that water department funds partially subsidized were student housing developments and the DoubleTree by Hilton.

Repayment of the $4.4 million was made possible by the infusion of $88 million the city will receive from the American Rescue Plan over the next few years. Otherwise the city’s general fund budget would have been depleted.

Now there’s the question of how to spend the remaining funds appropriated in the American Rescue Plan. In all, Mahoning and Trumbull counties and several cities are in line for nearly $216 million. Townships could also receive some funding.

Local government entities are awaiting more specific guidance on how these funds can be used. (See page 3.) As has been stated repeatedly, this money represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Mahoning Valley.

We certainly hope the jurisdictions that will receive these funds are carefully evaluating their best use and are making plans to solicit input from the general public and the business community in particular.

The intent of the American Rescue Plan is not limited to COVID-19 but also to help communities recover from decades of disinvestment and diminished tax bases. The best public investments – made through collaborations across city limits – will greatly transform our region.

One of the poverty-sustaining challenges highlighted by the pandemic is the lack of broadband access for inner city and rural households as students were forced to learn virtually for the better part of a year.

Consider the impact of providing broadband access across the Mahoning Valley, not only for students but for entrepreneurs and the business base. And consider the impact of fixing key roads and demolishing long-abandoned properties along main arteries and in the neighborhoods.

We must make investments to retain and attract the talent (brain gain) we need to contribute to our businesses, create new ones and establish families here. Or we will continue to suffer brain drain.

Youngstown and Warren have an obligation to make spending decisions that benefit their taxpayers. This includes the businesses and institutions that have elected to remain here even when it might have been more advantageous (lower income taxes) to move elsewhere. American Rescue Plan spending decisions rest with local officials. Widespread citizen and business input is essential.