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Politics & Government

Milwaukee Common Council Worries Federal CARES Dollars May Go Unspent

Milwaukee Common Council
At the beginning of their meeting Tuesday, the Milwaukee Common Council held a moment of silence. During the meeting, they discussed plans for using unspent CARES Act funds before the end of the year.

One of the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic has been getting resources to those who need them most. And, that includes people who’ve been quarantined, laid off, or unable to keep up with their bills.

Federal funding, in the form of the CARES Act, is meant to make a dent. But in Milwaukee, there’s been frustration surrounding getting those funds out to the community. That frustration was evident at Tuesday’s Common Council meeting.

In May, Milwaukee used CARES Act money to start distributing what it called hazard pay to city workers who faced potential risk of exposure to the coronavirus. The city also used the funding to help keep families in stable housing.

But Alderwoman Chantia Lewis said she worried the federal help is missing pockets of the community. Two weeks ago, at a Common Council committee meeting, Lewis proposed a first-come-first-served stipend.

“For families to be able to help in this virtual learning time — provide internet access, a laptop or some sort of device for our senior community, and additionally providing some support for those businesses that are starting up. If you’re a brand-new business, you’re missing that opportunity to apply for PPE dollars and those types of things,” explained Lewis.

Lewis said she’s been mulling over the strategy for months. She proposed funding the initiative with yet-unused CARES Act funds allocated to the city’s Community Block Grant program.

At Tuesday’s meeting of the full Common Council, the plan faced an hour’s worth of questions.

Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic wanted to know how many people the program would serve, how much it would cost, and more fundamentally does the Common Council have the power to reallocate CARES funds.

“I truly support the effort and the values and believe me, people need some relief, but I’m a little confused. I first wanted to know how much the program is going to cost. I guess the final item is, I remember being told many times, that only the executive administrative branch can appropriate or reappropriate CARES funding,” said Dimitrijevic.

Alderwoman Lewis said she’s working out the details with the head of the city’s community development grants department. She said there’s pressure to act soon because the funding must be used by the end of the year.

“As we getting to the wire of this, that it has to be expended, I don’t see this being a problem being able to just try to earmark some funds to help our community directly,” said Lewis.

She said there’s plenty of money waiting to be earmarked. The city’s Budget and Management Director Dennis Yaccarino just sent Common Council members a CARES funding status report.

Lewis said she and others were shocked to learn more than $44 million of the $103 million allotted has not yet been spent.

"Let’s be mindful that the allocations — just like we got that email last night — and it said all of these numbers and all of these different departments; we had no knowledge," she said.

Discussion returned to Alderwoman Lewis’ proposed initiative, she wants immigrants and undocumented residents to share in the stipend program. But Alderwoman Marina Dimitrijevic said it’s not clear whether they’d be eligible.

“Are we able to hear during this meeting for the record that the federal CARES funding and this program that’s being created can be used for undocumented workers." Dimitrijevic continued, “Because there’s such specifications and so many details and so many details and strings attached to this federal money."

Alderwoman Milele Coggs reminded fellow council members they often approve proposals that lack details, based on the shared belief that the goals are commendable.

“Without there being a full-blown plan in front of us or an exact dollar amount before us; it is not strange for us as a council to do that,” said Coggs.

But Coggs believed the debate at Tuesday’s meeting exposes a deeper issue: a lack of communication between the Common Council and Mayor Tom Barrett’s office over the CARES funding.

“I know you Alderwoman Dimitrijevic and I know you Alderwoman Lewis have both had countless questions about the CARES Act money — how it would be disseminated and the way in which and the timing in which it came to the council. These are hard time for all the people we serve,” she said.

Coggs continued saying she hoped someone from the mayor’s office was listening in.

“It would be so much easier if conversations were had on the front end where there was collaboration between the council and the administration about how these dollars could be spent so we are not sitting hear debating about program aspects that I think most part, the majority of us agree with,” said Coggs.

Coggs said unless leaders learn to improve communication, they’ll find themselves in the same situation again and again.

WUWM reached out to Mayor Barrett’s office but did not receive a response by the time this story was published.

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