The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners hosted a virtual town hall event over Zoom on Wednesday night, responding to questions and comments from residents concerning the county’s rescue plan and how to best allocate funding from the American Rescue Plan. Nearly thirty county residents joined the virtual meeting, which featured Ann Arbor Councilmembers Jen Eyer, Travis Radina, Linh Song and Julie Grand as well as Michigan State Senator Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor.
The Biden Administration passed the American Rescue Plan Act in March to help local governments, municipalities and citizens recover from the pandemic. Through the ARPA, Washtenaw County was awarded more than $71 million to be granted in two equal cycles: once in May of 2021 and then in May of 2022. In comparison, the total amount Washtenaw County planned to spend before the ARPA passed was $126 million per year.
The WCBC formulated a plan with a list of potential areas the funding could go towards, including public transportation across Washtenaw County, encouraging generational success, addressing housing insecurity and homelessness, creating a more sustainable community, supporting a strong local economy, investing in health and wellbeing, and practicing good government.
Ann Arbor Commissioners Andy LaBarre, Jason Morgan and Katie Scott led the meeting with self-introductions and then opened the floor up to the attendees. The discussion began with a focus on Ann Arbor Public Schools’ decision announced in May to cancel child care before and after school.
Aimee Picard, an Ann Arbor resident and small business owner and mother of two, expressed her dissatisfaction with the absence of child care, saying she thought some of the funding could potentially be allocated towards creating affordable child care for families in Ann Arbor.
“I was very excited for my daughter to start the public school system this fall,” Picard said. “but as a working mother I need before and after school care. AAPS has canceled that care and said that the community will step in and provide this, and I am not sure where that is because I don’t really feel like that’s available right now.”
In response, LaBarre thanked Picard for her comment and said AAPS childcare is not a direct responsibility of the County Commissioners. However, since childcare was canceled and many residents have expressed concerns, LaBarre said the commissioners have recognized a need for action. One option LaBarre offered was to provide resources and funding to AAPS to use directly for childcare programs.
Scott agreed with LaBarre and said, as a single mother herself, she depends on childcare programs and understands the importance of reinstating AAPS childcare before the upcoming school year.
“The feeling of anxiety, of not knowing how you’re going to balance being a parent and raising your children is real and I know it,” Scott said. “I’m a single parent. I use after school care. It was a lifesaver for me and I’m a nurse — I don’t make a lot of money and it was an affordable option for me where I knew my child was safe. I’m hoping that we can collaborate with AAPS and that we can come up with solutions together.”
Later in the discussion, a Dexter resident and the faculty experience designer at the University of Michigan Office of Academic Innovation, called in to support allocating ARPA funding towards tenant services and strengthening affordable housing options. Henyard said he believes having access to the internet and wifi is an essential utility, especially during the pandemic.
“Making sure that all of our new affordable housing options also have affordable connectivity will ensure all the economic, social and educational benefits that come from having access to (the) internet, which is frankly one of the most valuable utilities for young people,” Henyard said.
On the same topic, Scott said expanding broadband internet is a significant step towards ensuring the public health and safety of the county, especially for lower-populated areas.
“If we can get that broadband access into the rural parts of the county, I think it creates more opportunities countywide,” Scott said. “It’s like a utility issue. It’s like saying there’s whole parts of the county without running water. So we’ve got to make sure people can get that utility out there and are able to just have all of the things that are necessary for having broadband.”
Morgan added that he believes it is possible to effectively expand broadband given the county’s prioritization of the initiative even before the pandemic. Since the pandemic, Morgan said expanding access to broadband is even more important.
“We’ve been preparing to try and expand broadband access for quite some time,” Morgan said. “So we are perfectly positioned to be able to move on this very quickly, because we’ve been gathering the data.”
Ann Arbor resident Margy Long said she appreciated the Commissioner’s plan and proposed initiatives, but hoped more of the funding would go towards making the county more equitable.
“I’m wondering whether or not $71 million is really going to stretch this far,” Long said. “So I would hope that particular emphasis would be put on those projects that are going to impact our lowest resource families and people in the community…I feel that sometimes universal access to things just widens the gap between those who have and those who don’t have resources.”
LaBarre, Morgan and Scott affirmed the need to ensure underserved communities, in particular, are considered when thinking about how to allocate the ARPA funding. The goal of this meeting, the commissioners said, was to hear from the community what areas of their proposed plan should be prioritized.
“I just want to note there’s no way we can do all the things in that plan with $71 million,” Scott said. “I think it’s a big chunk of potentially life-changing money for people in our community. And what we’re trying to do here is be really deliberate and iterative about what we’re gonna do with that money to best serve our community.”
Summer News Editor Lily Gooding can be reached at email@example.com.