Council members in the cities of San Clemente and Lake Forest both decided last week on how to spend their pandemic relief funds, with one city focusing on infrastructure improvements and another giving nearly two thirds of their funds back to local businesses. 

The money in question comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, the chief federal bailout fund, sending nearly $700 million to Orange County cities and letting them decide how to help their communities. 

The public spending decisions from both city councils stand in stark contrast to the OC Board of Supervisors, where much of the federal bailout money was spent without a public discussion. 

The secret county spending drew the ire of local tax money watchdog groups.

[Read: Taxpayer Groups Demand Transparency on How OC Spends Hundreds of Millions in COVID Money]

Cities get one half of their allocated funds now, and the rest next year once they show how they spent the first half to federal auditors.

At their meetings last Tuesday, Lake Forest publicly decided what to do with $12.7 million of their money, while San Clemente allocated their $7.5 million share.  

Lake Forest 

Lake Forest is spending nearly two-thirds of its money on helping local businesses, setting up relief programs for hotels, restaurants and other local industries. 

Originally, the city was set to spend 51% of the funds for business relief, while 39% would go to helping the city recoup lost tax revenue during the pandemic and rehire some staff who were laid off at the start of the pandemic. The remaining 10% would be spent on the administration of the funds. 

Instead, the city council shifted the allocation, putting 65% of their relief funds into the local economy, and 25% into the city’s workforce. The remaining money will still be spent on organizing and accounting the funds. 

“The spirit was we should try and help the community, that’s where I would like to focus the energy first before I consider trying to help the city,” said Councilman Mark Tettemer, the first to suggest raising the business’ share of the funds. “That’s who needs more help.” 

Precise programs and specifics on how that money would be doled out to businesses was unavailable on Tuesday night since the programs had not been created yet. 

City staff said this is only the first of many meetings on how the city will spend its relief funds, and fully developed programs will return in the future for the council to approve or deny based on the funding allocated Tuesday night. 

“What we’re looking for tonight is the 5,000 foot level conceptual plan,” said city manager Debra Rose during the staff report. “Our plan is to work with the audit committee to get into more of the details … to drill down to an actual program.”

San Clemente

Further south, San Clemente decided to send just over $5 million of its $7.5 million allocation to repairing and updating infrastructure projects across the city.  

Approximately $1.5 million is planned to improve the lighting at the Steed Park softball fields, while another $1.1 million is allocated to replaster the pools at the city’s aquatic center.

The biggest single allocation is $2 million to fund the design and construction of a new meeting room for the city council. The current chambers have not been in use during the pandemic because they’re too small for social distancing guidelines in the chambers.

The new chambers will allow for social distancing, with plans set to come back to the council before the end of the year according to city staff. 

The council chose to save $1.6 million for 2023, and the remaining $1.2 million will go to smaller projects including a widening of Avenida Victoria’s sidewalk, funding the salary of three new city staffers, establishing social service grants and utilities assistance. 

Council member Gene James voiced concern regarding funding non-profit organizations.

“I’m a big believer that if a non-profit needs some sort of government stipend year after year, they are not a viable non-profit,” James said. “I would like to see some sort of guidelines and rules on where that money goes.”

City Manager Erik Sund clarified that all organizations would have to apply for funding and meet certain criteria and expectations before receiving a grant.

Other cities are still reviewing how they’ll invest their relief funds, with most cities in Orange County handling far larger sums. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada. 

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13

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