As cities across Orange County and the U.S. faced economic downturns amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government poured billions in bailout money to help them out.
That money is part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a federal bailout bill that is sending $350 billion to state and local governments as well as territorial and tribal governments.
Cities started to receive their first tranche of the money last summer and their second half this year.
And the US Treasury Department issued their final rules on how the money can be used on April 1 including: replacing lost revenue, investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, premium pay for essential workers and COVID public health responses.
But what exactly did local big city officials do with the money and on what exactly they allocate the money towards?
Here’s a look at how officials in three of Orange County’s largest cities are spending their share of the money.
Last month, Santa Ana City Councilmembers allocated the second half of their nearly $130 million of American Rescue Plan Act money towards community services and programs.
The money is slated for the Revive Santa Ana plan intended to provide relief through rental assistance, food assistance, business assistance, youth programs, digital literacy education and sexual assualt intervention.
Hector Bustos, the communications director for Chispa – a local community organization, said in a phone interview last month Santa Ana was one of the cities most impacted by the COVID pandemic.
“We know that a lot of folks are still facing the impact of COVID-19, and the financial impacts it had on folks,” Bustos said. “Investing in community centers, investing in young people, investing in services or programs that benefit the health and well being of the city is important.”
The COVID money in Santa Ana is being split between five spending buckets – the bulk of which is going towards “critical infrastructure.”
City officials are allocating over $51 million dollars towards critical infrastructure including $16.5 million to transform the city’s main library and $14 million to renovate the city’s community centers. $3.5 million is also being used towards broadband access.
Over $34 million is being allocated towards public health and safety, which includes over $11 million for additional park space in the city and over $5 million to boost property compliance programs.
According to a 2021 report from the state auditor’s office, after receiving the ARPA and CARES act dollars, the city had over $2.8 million in positive revenue growth.
Click here to read this year’s progress report on the Revive Santa Ana plan.
In Anaheim, city officials decided to use the entirety of their $106 million share of the American Rescue Plan Act to backfill lost revenue in order to continue to provide city services.
City Spokesman Mike Lyster said in an email last month that the city saw “unprecedented loss of revenue” unlike in other cities in the county due to the pandemic.
“Anaheim saw the loss of $350 million over two years with the 14-month closure of our theme parks, convention center and limited operations at sports venues. Rather than cut services to unrecognizable levels to address that shortfall, we relied on reserves and internal budgeting until federal funding for lost revenue became available,” Lyster wrote.
Lyster said the money was used to cover the “already expended” cost of services like police, fire, city libraries and community centers.
According to the report from the state auditor’s office, even after assistance from the American Rescue Plan Act and other similar funds, the city was still down around $38 million.
“The funding was used to help address large deficits in our budgets at the end of fiscal years,” he wrote.
Ely Flores, the Executive Director of Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, said in a Monday morning phone interview that Anaheim should have followed the example of Santa Ana.
“It seems like Anaheim is following its traditional trend of not really following a community focused approach,” he said.
Flores said he would have liked to see that community approach in Anaheim.
“It would have been great to see some more investment into local community infrastructure, right, whether it be libraries, community centers, improving some of the some of the actual neighborhoods,” he said.
While Anaheim isn’t using state and local recovery dollars on new projects or programs like other cities, over $72 million has been allocated to community relief, according to a city report.
To view the full report, click here.
The $72 million came from CARES act funding from 2020 and not the American Rescue Plan Act, according to Lyster.
This included $30 million on rental assistance, around $6 million for struggling businesses through $10,000 grants, $3 million for a utility bill assistance program and another $3 million was given to local nonprofits to help residents with food, household supplies and masks.
City council members also poured $6.5 million bailout dollars into Visit Anaheim in March 2020, shortly after the pandemic kicked off. At the time, officials said the money would help secure convention center bookings and tourism for a resort industry that was closed indefinitely.
Disneyland and other resort businesses weren’t able reopen their doors for more than another year, and there’s yet to be a full accounting of what exactly the $6.5 million did for the city.
City council members also gave the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce a $500,000 contract from federal COVID bailout money in 2020 to encourage local shopping and for a hiring program.
While some cities broke their decision on spending the American Rescue Plan Act funds into two separate votes, Irvine city councilmembers chose to approve the city’s plan in one vote last October.
Altogether, the plan invested $56.4 million, one of the largest allocations in Orange County, on a series of city initiatives including municipal broadband and park improvements.
Nearly $26 million went toward the city’s “quality of life,” programs, which was mostly focused on new air filtration systems and new public park equipment.
Since the mask mandates ended at the beginning of this year, numerous public health experts and epidemiologists have told Voice of OC that a constant supply of fresh, clean air in buildings helps cut down on COVID transmission.
The city also spent $8.8 million on their “Natural Environment,” plans, which also focused on improving parks as well as city streets.
Irvine officials were also poised to spend on a variety of improvements at city hall, including a new air conditioning system and new employee gym, but ultimately scrapped those plans after concerns from residents.
City staff received one-time premium pay of $2.3 million.
To review the city’s final spending plan for all of the American Rescue Plan Act funds, click here.
Those funds followed the city’s decision to invest its CAREs Act dollars exclusively on protections for renters in the city, dividing the funds between various nonprofits focused on helping residents keep their homes or break their leases to go live elsewhere, a process Voice of OC found many Irvine residents struggled with.
According to a report from the state auditor’s office, Irvine ended up with $1.8 million in positive revenue growth after the ARPA and CARES funds came in.
In a phonecall Wednesday afternoon, city manager Oliver Chi confirmed the city had allocated all of its covid relief dollars and had no plans on revisiting them.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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