Leaders Laud $216M in Local Rescue Plan Funds

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – County and city leaders in the Mahoning Valley welcomed the upcoming infusion of federal funds from the recently enacted American Rescue Plan.

The $1.9 trillion legislation, which President Joe Biden signed into law Thursday, will direct an estimated $215.79 million to cities and villages in Mahoning and Trumbull counties as well as the counties themselves.

More than 40% of that is going to the city of Youngstown, which is being allocated an estimated $88.63 million, according to U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio. In all, more than $700 million will come to the 13th District, he said.

Other major recipients include the city of Warren, which is receiving $29.75 million; Mahoning County, $44.35 million; and Trumbull County, $38.40 million. Funds also are expected to go to local townships, but those amounts still are being determined.

The money to state and local governments provided by the legislation is intended not only to plug holes in budgets caused by the pandemic, but also to help communities like Youngstown and Warren – many of which have community development block grants and other funding cut – prepare for the coming economic expansion, Ryan said during a virtual news conference.

“Small and midsize cities have been gutted over the last 20 to 30 years, and this is an opportunity as the economy grows coming out of the pandemic,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, took a dimmer view of the $1.9 trillion spending bill in a statement emailed from his office. He was among a group of Republicans who last month offered a $618 billion alternative bill.

“There are parts of this bill, especially those that mirror our Republican alternative on supporting the production and distribution of additional vaccines, that will help,” he said. “But there are hundreds of billions in spending in this measure that are unnecessary when we know that nearly half of the last $900 billion COVID-19 relief package enacted in December has yet to be spent. We also know that a significant portion of spending in the bill signed into law today won’t be spent well into next year and years later.”

Further, he said the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected that the economy will recover to pre-pandemic levels by mid-year without any additional stimulus.

“I don’t think we should apologize one second for finally making the kind of investment in the communities that they need,” Ryan countered Thursday. “It’s not just about plugging a hole. It’s about making sure that they’re prepared for the growth that is to come post-pandemic. We want these communities plugged in.”

Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown, who testified during a U.S. Senate committee hearing last month on the legislation, greeted the news of the city’s allocation.

“People are still unemployed. People are still hurting,” he said. He envisioned using the money to “leave a legacy for the city.” Potential uses for the funds are assistance to small businesses in the city, and road and water infrastructure upgrades.

Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti said the county doesn’t have a full idea of how the funds can be used, but she is looking at helping small businesses in the county, as well as making up for lower tax revenues last year and funding projects that had to be cut.

“It’s reassuring,” Niles Mayor Steve Mientkiewicz said. How the city will use its projected $3.56 million allocation will be determined after officials have had the chance to review what restrictions there might be on the funds’ use.

Although the retail and hospitality sectors last year were particularly hard hit by the pandemic — the Eastwood Mall Complex is in Niles – some of the city’s major employers, including the school system and the city itself, maintained operations. Tax collections in 2020 were down a better-than-projected $1 million from the year before, he reported.

Even so, layoffs, budget cuts and infusions from previous COVID relief legislation were required to balance the budget, he acknowledged. Projects planned for 2020 also had to be postponed.

In Struthers, officials there are similarly waiting to see guidelines on spending its $1.98 million allocation, Mayor Catherine Cercone Miller said.

“That’s going to be a huge plus for us,” Miller said. The intent is to “spread it around as much as we can just to gain the full benefit of it,” with infrastructure spending among the likely uses.

“My hope is that this is the last [COVID relief package] that is needed. I think it’s big enough to get us through where we need to be,” Ryan told reporters on the conference call. “Then I would like to see us come back with a big transportation bill that would build roads and bridges and broadband, and really get the economy primed to compete globally.”

Ryan said the American Rescue Plan funds would have fewer restrictions than governed previous COVID-19 relief packages. It can be used to replenish governments for revenue lost because of the pandemic, for example.

“We want to make sure that our … first responders don’t get laid off because of the budget crunch in some of these towns. This money can go for that,” he said. “It can go for infrastructure. It can go for broadband. So this is going to have a significant impact on all of these communities.”

The U.S. Treasury will receive $50 million to administer the funds and to ensure the funds are being spent properly, he said. The money can’t be used to offset a tax cut or for pension funds, and the money has to be spent by the end of calendar year 2024.

In addition to addressing their individual needs, Ryan is urging local officials to discuss pooling some of the funds they receive for a larger project or initiative, if it makes sense for the individual communities, he emphasized.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that a windfall of $700 million to our local communities is something that doesn’t happen very often, so we should at least have a conversation about thinking big,” he said. “Maybe it’s broadband. Maybe it’s something we could do out in Lordstown with Voltage Valley. I don’t know, but we need to have that conversation.”

Local government and economic development leaders support that conversation taking place.

“We are all about collaboration,” Niles Mayor Mientkiewicz said. While some governments used past coronavirus assistance funding to provide loans or grants for small business, he would support creation of a similar fund open to businesses in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.

Rimedio-Righetti and Brown were among those who supported broadband investment. Lack of widespread broadband access was a concern exposed during the pandemic, especially with students and many workers having to rely on it.

Brown also suggested roadway projects involving the corridors that connect Youngstown with its surrounding communities and developing site-ready locations for development in the region.

Guy Coviello, president and CEO of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber, declined to offer any suggestions on what project the communities might collaborate on, but said Ryan was “100% spot on” for making the suggestion.

“If all of the counties, cities, villages and townships receiving this money take a breath, take a step back, and come together on economic development and invest that money, we can create an economy here that our kids, grandkids and great grandkids can prosper from,” he said. “I have my ideas, but we need to make a collective decision on how to invest this money so that it has a generational impact and not a Band-Aid impact.”

John Moliterno, CEO of the Western Reserve Port Authority, said he could “certainly see the benefits” of a community conversation.

“I’m not going to tell you that I have a project today that would fit that bill, that would benefit the entire Valley, but that doesn’t mean that kind of project won’t come up, and this would be a perfect time to talk about it.”

Pictured: President Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, looks up after signing the American Rescue Plan, a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.