How Can Relief Funds Help Iowans? Debate Is On In City Councils, Municipal Elections.

By Nikoel Hytrek

June 1, 2021

To help the country rebound from the economic and human devastation caused by COVID-19, President Joe Biden and Congress have allocated significant funding support from the federal government. The American Rescue Plan includes money for states and local governments to use for recovery, and Iowa cities will receive around $335 million in total, according to the Iowa League of Cities.

But what’s the best way to use those funds to get them directly to the people in need and to help communities recover? That’s a question left up to local leaders, and the ideas being offered for it are shaping the public meetings of city councils this year, as well as the campaigns of municipal candidates hoping to serve their community after the November elections.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart is already working on fitting the money into the city’s recovery efforts. The city is slated to get nearly $25 million.

Back in February, Hart was one of 32 Republican mayors who signed a letter urging Congressional Republicans to stop obstructing the American Rescue Plan and emphasizing how important it would be to their communities.

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Now, Hart said the city is working to understand where the money best fits while also following the guidelines for its use. He said the federal aid could help replace revenue lost last year, and could ensure the city can keep programs and initiatives moving.

Last year, the city was also hit hard by a damaging derecho in August. It destroyed homes, uprooted trees and cut off power across the city. Hart said the city will use money for that recovery, too.

Hart’s opponents for this November’s election, Amara Andrews and Tiffany O’Donnell, also have ideas about how the money can be distributed to rebuild the community and to improve what was lacking.

“A major part of our recovery has to do with repairing the human welfare infrastructure of this city,” Andrews said in a press release. “Helping these non-profits recover by providing direct financial assistance will not only help our most vulnerable residents, but it will also help repair the larger social fabric of our community.”

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She also suggests doing it by investing in the workforce by supporting small and mid-sized businesses, while also providing a groundwork for new businesses to start. That would include helping people to learn about applying and searching for jobs, as well as how to get around transportation and child care barriers.

“I am confident that this comprehensive approach can serve as a roadmap for recovery as well as a catalyst that helps us achieve a 21st century economy where people and businesses thrive,” Andrews said in the press release.

They have both said the focus should be on what directly connects back to the people of Cedar Rapids, like non-profits and small businesses that missed out on revenue last year. They’d like to balance recovery with future development.

“I would like to see a portion of the American Recovery Act go to supporting our existing small businesses and non-profits and incentivizing the creation of new businesses,” O’Donnell said in an emailed statement. “Federal funding could accelerate these efforts.”

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On her website, O’Donnell expands, saying the city should help non-profits make up their funds for last year and give enough for this year to ensure they can do their work. She also said the city should create a fund to support local small businesses owned by women and minorities and lead to the development of new ones.

O’Donnell also mentions incentivizing affordable housing, increasing street repairs and lowering debt.

There are guidelines attached for using the money, so officials’ options are limited to an extent.

But there’s room for them to work, and the guidance allows communities to thread the same balance of supporting those negatively affected by the pandemic, while setting up for future success at the same time.

Alex Watters, a Sioux City councilman, said the city team has come up with several options he likes, and they touch on solving problems like affordable housing, broadband internet, tourism and water management.

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All would provide steps to solve problems, and set the stage for continued progress, he said. Sioux City is set to get around $43 million.

“There are real opportunities to improve our community with this program,” Watters said in an email. “Over the summer, I plan on talking with constituents on the progress we have made over the last few years and how this federal program will have a positive impact on our community for years to come.”

Threading the line between stabilizing the community and setting it up for success has all kinds of implications for the citizens of Iowa, and that’s who leaders and candidates emphasize should be at the center of this.

Athena Gilbraith, a current candidate for Davenport mayor, said the last year has only shed a light on how instability affects some of Iowa’s most vulnerable communities.

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She’s advocating for some of the funds to be allocated directly toward people like another, smaller stimulus check.

There are other parts of the American Rescue Plan she means to incorporate in her campaign, too. The plan includes provisions to address climate change with investments in renewable energy and Gilbraith said solar power and paying attention to neglected neighborhoods are some of her priorities.

The American Rescue Plan is one way to get there, and to ease some of the difficulty 2020 brought.

“I do think the priority should be people,” Gilbraith said. “It is my belief that the American Rescue Plan is intended to create this sense of relief.”


by Nikoel Hytrek
Posted 6/1/21

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  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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