Here's how Columbus has spent more than $83 million in COVID funds

The city has received more than $187 million in ARPA funds and has allocated about $83 million of that amount. Here's how the first portion was spent.
ColumbusJoe Deptowicz on Unsplash

Rarely do cities receive funding outside of their budgets, but that’s the situation Columbus finds itself in after being granted millions to alleviate effects of the pandemic. 

Due to Columbus receiving more than $187 million in federal funds, grassroots activists have used this as an opportunity to call on the city to invest dollars into better housing options for residents experiencing houselessness. The city has allocated around $83 million already, including roughly $22 million to organizations sheltering unhoused individuals, leaving questions about how the remaining $104 million will be spent. 

When Mayor Andrew Ginther announced Columbus had received its initial amount of American Rescue Plan funds in June of 2021, it was decided that the first investment of dollars would go toward helping youth have educational and employment opportunities. 

“Our city and our residents continue to suffer from the fallout of the global pandemic, and no one has been more negatively impacted than our young people,” Ginther said in a news release

The city has until 2024 to decide how the remaining funds will be spent, but in the meantime, here’s what you need to know about where the funds come from, why Columbus is receiving them and how the city has already invested some of the funds.

What is the American Rescue Plan Act, and why is funding attached?

President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) into effect on March 11, 2021 – the day that marked the first anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic. The program’s goal is to alleviate the harmful impacts the pandemic is leaving on communities in the United States.

Also referred to as the COVID-19 Stimulus Package, ARPA provided direct relief of $1,400 to individuals who made less than $75,000 per year and couples who had incomes less than $150,000, including another $1,400 for dependents of those households. In addition, the program is also giving money to governments for COVID relief.

A part of ARPA known as the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds distributed $350 billion to state, local and Tribal governments across the country to provide direct relief to their communities. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the funds are meant to help governments provide resources to support families and businesses through public health and economic impacts, preserve public services and make a strong recovery through “investments that support long-term growth and opportunity.”

After May 11, 2021, Columbus received an initial $93 million in ARPA funds. The city will receive another $93 million more than a year after the initial funds were allocated. On the state level, Ohio was given a total $11.01 billion from the federal government in ARPA funds to distribute to state, local and Tribal governments. By December 31, 2024, government recipients of funds need to have decided where funds will be invested, and they have two years following that date to spend them.

How has Columbus invested the funds so far?

After looking through eligible uses, cities and recipients of funding decide what to invest the money in and what policies will utilize some of the dollars. Mayor Andrew Ginther, in a city announcement about ARPA funding on June 15, 2021, said he and Columbus City Council agreed to “allocate $19.7 million for short-term youth engagement and anti-violence efforts.” This plan included distributing funding to community nonprofits and organizations.

City Council passed the first round of ordinances beginning their $19.7 million investment to support youth programming on June 14, 2021. Out of the $19.7 million, $15.6 million will utilize ARPA funds. The Columbus Recreation and Parks Department received $800,000 of ARPA funds out of a total $4.8 million to spend on summer programming. The parks department has to use $4.2 million of these funds “to support qualified 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations that provide youth programming centered on addressing educational disparities and/or promoting healthy childhood environments.”

An example of a “priority project” in collaboration with community organizations using ARPA funds included the passage of the We Can Bridge the COVID-19 Graduation Gap project. The measure solidified a partnership with I Know I Can – a community organization in Columbus which provides students with opportunities to receive a college education. Nearly $6 million was granted to the organization to enable them to issue “summer credit recovery, post-secondary education preparation, career readiness and youth employment programs for high school students.” The goal of the investment was to acknowledge how COVID-19 caused a decline in high school graduation rates and to change the course.

Another program using ARPA funds, The Working to Stem the Tide of Community Violence project provided funding for an anti-violence effort the city undertook. The legislation allocated $844,000 to be split among the Community Caring Development Foundation, Mothers of Murdered Columbus Children, National Center for Urban Solutions and the Urban Foundation Inc. This investment was meant to serve seniors, single-family households and youth to allow these community organizations to continue their anti-violence work. Another project that received funds include the project Expanding Employment Opportunities, which invests $2,001,175 to employment, education and volunteer opportunities for teens. Making Summer Camp Accessible allocated $500,000 to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Ohio for summer programming. Finally, the Using Intervention to Reach Youth project distributed $105,000 to the Reaching Higher Heights 4 Life and 22nd Street Cookies violence intervention programs.

On May 19, 2022, city leaders announced a $16.2 million investment using ARPA funds toward youth summer programming. Ginther said $7.9 million, the bulk of the investment, will be allocated to prevent violence that affects youth and younger adults in the city. Another $5.3 million will be distributed to educational and mentorship opportunities, and $3 million will go toward workforce development programs. Of the $16.2 million in city investment, $14.4 million of the investment came from ARPA funds and $1.8 million was expended from the Reimagining Safety Fund. The Reimagine Safety initiative was started by City Council in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd to support new public safety measures.

Recipients of the 2022 grants for summer programs include Columbus City Schools, CARE Coalition, CCAD, Columbus Urban League, Community Development for All People, Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio, United Way and 27 other community organizations. Because of the $19.7 million investment for summer programming and violence prevention last summer, community organizations enrolled 38,000 youth between the ages of 5 and 20, which Ginther pointed to as proof of the program's success during a press conference about the announcement of the 2022 summer programming.

Director of Development for Columbus, Michael Stevens, said the federal government “stepped up in a big way to put significant funding at the state and local level to really address not only the health needs” but the “human service crisis” and “work crisis.” The service industry had to work in-person during the pandemic and take health risks often without sufficient wage raises, he added.

From 2019 to 2021, there was an increase in “median pay for seven of the 10 most common jobs in the Columbus area,” according to Policy Matters Ohio. But these changes were seen differently in various jobs. The most common occupation in Columbus, customer service representatives, saw a pay decrease of $0.53 from 2000 to 2019. Since 2019, those workers have had a percent pay growth of 1.5 percent. Registered nurses are the fourth most common occupation in the city and between 2000 and 2019 had a pay decrease of $0.37, but after 2019 saw an increase of 11.9 percent.

The pandemic disproportionately affected low-paying jobs, Policy Matters Ohio reported. Low-paying jobs, such as those in customer service, are more likely to be worked by Black and Brown people and women of all races. Therefore, the small increase in wages for workers in the customer service industry during the pandemic was felt heavily.

“Having some of these federal dollars come in and then be able to use these dollars to support our partners in the community who are serving our residents, I think [it was] critical,” Stevens said.

About a third of the allocated ARPA funds went toward housing

Although the city has spotlighted some ARPA funds being used for summer youth programs and violence prevention efforts, Stevens said, “those are not the only two” and a “big tranche” of dollars went to serving the houseless and other vulnerable communities.

“From July of 2020 through June of ‘21, our shelters in Franklin County served more than 6,600 individuals including nearly 1,200 children,” Stevens said. “So, we made sure that we took a significant portion of the rescue plan dollars to help fund the shelter and the shelter operations because not only did they see an increase [of] individuals coming through, but the pandemic has impacted them as well and being able to recruit people and retain people was really becoming a challenge.”

In 2021, the city distributed ARPA funds to organizations to continue their housing missions. Community Shelter Board, a nonprofit organization that provides outreach and shelter to unhoused residents, received the most ARPA funds at roughly $12.3 million. The next highest was $4.5 million given to the Wells Foundation, an organization that assists other nonprofits and entrepreneurs in creating social impact. The third highest recipient of funds was the YMCA, which got $2,531,693.

Additional allocations include $5.4 million in annual funding for the Community Shelter Board, also from the city’s general fund, and $4.5 million in surge funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for other local shelter services.

A new three-year funding process will distribute $5 million in ARPA funds to organizations addressing houselessness, infant mortality, and housing instability among immigrant and refugee populations. The city started accepting applications in April and said announcements of grants will be delivered later this year.

These grants could help grassroots organizations and advocates further the work they’re already doing on the ground to support unhoused residents in the city. FIRST Collective’s proposal and Heer to Serve’s ideas for investment opportunities remain unused by the city, despite these organizations working with folks experiencing houselessness. But the stigmas surrounding encampments is a factor that Bliss believes causes the city to refrain from distributing funding to FIRST Collective.

“They haven’t necessarily rejected the proposal,” Bliss said. “Every time we meet with them it’s like this, ‘Oh, we’re still talking about it.’ We know you’re not going to give us funding for this like as soon as the word ‘tent’ was used it was like nothing else could get past that.”

The Department of Finance and Management receives information through “intake” forms filled out by community organizations and also manages some of the communication to other city departments about what needs to be prioritized using ARPA funds.

“If there’s a program or an entity that we’re going to fund, we reach out to them,” Stevens, director of the development department, said. “We take legislation to City Council to approve it and then we enter into a contract with the organization to provide those grants dollars.”

Current information about ARPA, including information about requesting funding, can be found using this link.

While applications for these funds cycle through and are read by city officials, organizations such as FIRST Collective questioned why they couldn’t be granted almost one-thousandth of the total amount of ARPA funds the city is expected to receive.

“If they gave us dollars, just what we could do would be amazing,” said Elizabeth Blackburn, a founding member of First Collective 614 and Camp Shameless. “And they give that out all of the time to lots of big companies, and then so much of it goes into overhead [and] goes into bureaucratic processing. But we could use it to build houses.”

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