116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The public is seeing how a $29 million sausage is made in Johnson County. It hasn’t been pretty.
When the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was passed in March, one goal was to help governments cover revenue losses and unexpected costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic through $350 billion in federal aid. Those budget hits never materialized, though — state and local governments have fared OK during the pandemic.
So now there are hundreds of billions of dollars in COVID aid sloshing around thousands of state and local governments around the country and they need to be spent. Taxpayers have no good way to keep track of the historic spending spree.
In Johnson County, the process to allocate the money has been characterized by Board of Supervisors meetings that can go on for up to six hours; references to slideshow presentations that often can’t be seen on the public livestream; a rotating cast of county staffers addressing the board while masked so you can’t always tell who’s speaking; a dizzying cascade of agenda documents with no context or annotation.
The Board of Supervisors last week approved a round of $5.6 million in ARPA spending. Most of the budget lines sound like reasonable projects. If you gave bureaucrats and politicians infinite dollars, they could probably think of infinite projects that sound reasonable.
Federal spending has grown so large that the sums sound like made-up numbers, but this really is a lot of money. ARPA funds equal a substantial portion of local governments’ entire annual budgets. Johnson County’s $29.3 million haul amounts to almost a quarter of all expenditures the county budgeted for this fiscal year.
For the regular annual budget, officials take months to discuss and finalize their spending plans and staff members work on the budget all year long. They look years into the future to project revenue and expected needs. This money is being dropped in their laps outside the regular budgeting process.
Dumping billions of dollars into local government coffers does not seem to promote wise planning.
Many local uses of ARPA dollars are meant to be permanent programs, not temporary pandemic projects. Local governments are using millions of one-time dollars to hire new staff with no idea how they will continue paying them after the federal dollars run out in a few years. If revenue doesn’t grow enough, those employees presumably will be downsized.
ARPA is just one pot of money fueling the local largesse. There’s also CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) money approved under the previous Trump administration, infrastructure bill funding to be divvied up and soon there will be “Build Back Better” dollars to spend.
There is so much money coming down from Washington, D.C. that even politicians and bureaucrats have trouble keeping track of it. At one recent meeting, Johnson County staff acknowledged they couldn’t say specifically how CARES Act dollars received last year were spent.
“I'm a little chagrined to think we didn’t do that on the back end while we were making decisions up here,” Supervisor Rod Sullivan said at the Nov. 11 meeting.
The board has been overwhelmed by input from the Excluded Workers Coalition, which advocates to give cash payments to undocumented immigrants and others who were shut out of federal stimulus payments. Even with the outpouring of interest from Spanish-speaking constituents, the supervisors bungled the public comment process by initially denying them extra time for interpretation.
The county plans to dedicate up to $2 million to excluded workers but payments won’t be available until next year. County officials have had access to the money for months and they’re still taking their time to make good on payments the rest of us started receiving more than a year ago.
Responding to the public’s frustration at the lack of transparency, first-term Supervisor Jon Green took it upon himself to start posting more detailed updates about spending plans on social media. Twitter threads with screenshots of spreadsheets are probably not best practice for government communications but it helped fill a gap.
To be fair, none of these problems is unique to Johnson County. Johnson County is probably more transparent than most local governments, which only highlights the dismal state of government accessibility.
(319) 339-3156; email@example.com