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St. Louis, St. Louis County discuss priorities for spending stimulus money

St. Louis, St. Louis County discuss priorities for spending stimulus money

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St. Louis and St. Louis County officials met separately on Saturday to prioritize how to spend a combined $710 million of incoming federal stimulus funding, allotted through the American Rescue Plan.

The money, part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden on March 11, represents the biggest infusion of federal funds into local governments in decades.

The St. Louis County Council met with a facilitator in a hybrid session that was both online and in person for more than three hours for initial discussions on where its $193 million cut of funding should be spent. The St. Louis city Stimulus Advisory Board, which includes 25 members from across the public and private spheres, also met, aiming to produce recommendations for how the city’s $517 million share of money can best be spent.

St. Louis County officials identified 11 broad spending categories. County Council members were asked to narrow the list to five, but no formal vote was taken and the tally of their preferences was not reported.

The categories included housing stabilization, economic development, public health, food insecurity, safe neighborhoods, small-business relief, the digital divide, infrastructure, public safety, a COVID-19 emergency fund and program management.

The categories are broad. For example, housing stabilization could include money for demolishing abandoned buildings, help paying for repairs so residents can stay in their homes, rent assistance or help with landlord-tenant disputes. Economic development could include child care and job training.

The COVID-19 emergency fund would be used to avoid tax increases, said Mark Harder, R-7th District. The program management fund would be used to pay the costs of administering the federal money.

The county will have three years to use the money. Local governments are prohibited from using the money for pension obligations or tax cuts. Other requirements are expected by mid-May from the Treasury Department.

Aiming to coordinate

At the start of the St. Louis city group’s virtual discussion Saturday, Mayor Tishaura O. Jones emphasized that the goal is to equitably invest the money for “maximum transformational impact” in the community. She asked for early “direct relief” to be finalized by June.

“We need to move forward with direct relief as soon as possible,” Jones said.

Members of the advisory board outlined half a dozen major categories as direct relief priorities: aid for rental, mortgage and utility needs; small and distressed business assistance; housing assistance for homeless or “unstably” housed individuals; the “digital divide,” and unequal access to high-speed internet; free public transportation; and a pilot program to explore forms of direct cash assistance.

One issue that the group is aiming to address is how to connect individuals with the resources that become available, including “unbanked” people, with no bank accounts.

The board also expressed a desire to align priorities across different municipal governments and agencies eligible for funding.

“We need to leverage funds from a regional perspective, as much as possible,” said Rodney Boyd, a Jefferson City lobbyist and participant on the board.

The money headed to St. Louis and St. Louis County exceeds that received last year through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act.

St. Louis County received $173 million through the CARES Act, while the city got $35 million from the bill. This time around, the American Rescue Plan extends greater help to the city, since the measure based funding on poverty, population trends, and even the age of housing stock.

Post-Dispatch staff contributed to this report.

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