As millions in federal Coronavirus relief dollars start pouring into cities across Orange County, elected leaders are asking themselves what exactly they want to use the money for — from employee shower doors and a gym to a municipal skatepark.

The money is coming from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a federal bailout bill set to send $350 billion to state, local, territorial and tribal governments including municipalities in Orange County.

Under interim guidelines put out by the US Treasury Department, the money can be used to offer premium pay for frontline workers, back paying lost tax revenue, as well as upgrades to water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

It can also be used to fund COVID-19 mitigation efforts as well as to address economic impacts caused by the pandemic on small businesses, workers, families and impacted industries.

While some cities are waiting on the final rules from the Treasury Department, some have already publicly announced how they’re planning to spend the money. 

But cities are starting to pick up questions from residents as they invest the money, with expenditures on issues not remotely related to the pandemic, like city hall upgrades.

[Read: How Are OC Cities and the County Supposed to Spend COVID Bailout Money?]

Irvine Looks to Build New Affordable Housing, Upgrade Employee Gym

The Irvine City Council has yet to approve their ARPA spending plan, but a draft version was sent to the city council earlier this week after the city’s finance commission approved a spending plan for their $56 million relief package. 

With one of the largest relief budgets of any city in the county, there’s a lot of flexibility on where to send that money. In the current plan, most of the spending is headed toward outdoor programs, with well over $10 million going toward a variety of projects.

The single largest allocation is $14.5 million going toward developing more affordable housing and more broadband infrastructure development. 

The city is also investing significantly in new playground equipment and the outdoor environment, with over $9 million earmarked for those projects. 

The plan also has the city spending a large amount on it’s own staff. 

Nearly $2.3 million is going to city staff in one time bonuses before the end of the fiscal year. In the 2022-23 fiscal year, the city also plans to spend $10,000 on new shower doors at city hall and $625,000 on upgrading the city staff’s gym. 

The council’s final vote on the issue will come on Oct. 12.  

Laguna Hills Moves to Backfill Losses

Laguna Hills’ allocation of the federal relief money is around $7.5 million.

Like in other cities in the county, officials are planning to use most of their funds to backfill for lost tax revenue over the pandemic, which even city staff admits gives them a lot of leeway on where that money can go.

“Funding for replacement of lost revenues provides the City with the most flexibility in the use of the value of these funds for any other government purposes,” reads a city staff report.

While most cities have created an itemized list of where they plan to spend their funds, the Laguna Hills report does not go into detail about what city projects or services the money will be allocated for.

“For the first tranche staff focus is on what would offset COVID-19 related revenue losses and or free up limited resources to support previously adopted budget priorities, projects and deferred maintenance,” said Janice Reyes, the city’s finance director, at a special meeting last Tuesday.

At that same meeting, Councilman Dave Wheeler said that the council wasn’t going to decide where specifically it would go that day, but plans to address spending down the road.

“We’re going to be allocating as time moves forward, piece by piece,” he said.

Santa Ana Eyes a Memorial For COVID Deaths

In Santa Ana — a city expected to receive $128 million in Covid relief — is using their portion of the money towards funding what city officials are calling the “Revive Santa Ana” initiative.

The initiative is intended to provide COVID-19 relief through improvement projects as well as new resources, studies and services to address the negative impacts of the pandemic. 

This includes $200,000 being allocated to researching the possibility of the city creating its own public health department and another $200,000 towards a memorial for people who lost their lives during the pandemic.

Community mental health support services is slated to get a $1 million boost and $2 million is going towards expanding city communication methods through digital signs, informational kiosks and translation subscription-based services informing people of available resources.

The recovery plan is also intended to address the negative financial impacts the pandemic unleashed on the city and it’s residents with $3 million going to small businesses, nonprofits and other organizations who have struggled during the pandemic.

And $1 million is being allocated to help local food assistance programs serving lower income communities.

Officials have also allocated $4 million to provide residents with grocery gift cards as well as a basic income program for people that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. There is also $1 million for a farmers market.

Money is also allocated for technological improvements.

According to the plan, $3.5 million is going towards studying broadband access in the city and $2 million towards improving the city website and the city app.

About $9 million is going to backfill lost revenue during the pandemic and around $22 million is going towards the library.

Of the $22 million, $15 million is going towards improvements to the central library and $7 million to create a new branch of the library and improve its accessibility.

To review more specifics of Santa Ana’s plan, click here.  

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In September, Huntington Beach City Councilmembers unanimously approved a spending plan on how they intend to use nearly $30 million dollars in federal bailout money.

Under their plan, city officials are allocating the money to 18 different projects including building a world class skatepark, permanent supportive housing, business loans and broadband infrastructure improvements throughout the city.

[Read: Here’s How HB City Council Plans to Spend About $30 million in Federal Covid Funds]

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South Orange County cities like Lake Forest and San Clemente have also started to think about what they want to do with their covid relief dollars.

[Read: South Orange County Cities Choose Where To Spend Pandemic Bailout Money]

San Clemente plans on using $5 million of its $7.5 million share towards repairing and updating infrastructure projects in the city including improvements to the city’s aquatic center.

Officials there are allocating $2 million dollars to use toward building a new meeting room for the city council.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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

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