NEW ALBANY — Should a body consisting of a majority of appointed members cast the deciding votes on how $16.83 million in federal relief will be spent, or should those choices be made by the New Albany City Council?
It’s an issue that dominated Monday’s council meeting, as local governments are considering how funds approved via the American Relief Plan will be used, and who will ultimately oversee those expenditures.
Based on first and second readings of an ordinance approved 6-3, the New Albany Redevelopment Commission will be the body that votes on those projects.
Councilman Josh Turner offered an amendment that would have switched the commission with the council. The commission consists of two city council members, currently Councilman Jason Applegate and Councilwoman Jennie Collier. The other three appointments are made by the mayor.
Turner and council members Al Knable and Scott Blair contended that the majority of commission members don’t have to face an election and therefore aren’t held to the same account as the elected legislative body.
The amendment spurred a somewhat contentious debate over procedures and authority. Turner said he had to file multiple requests with the commission over the past two years to obtain public information that should have been readily available.
“I don’t trust redevelopment,” Turner said. “You have a partisan board which has voted from what I can tell unanimously since January 2020, or you have a bipartisan board that represents the people of the city.”
The first half of the federal funds are expected within a month, with the second half to be dispersed next year. All of the funds must be spent by 2024, and there are restrictions on how they can be used though more guidance is anticipated in the coming weeks.
The ordinance approved Monday includes making up for lost revenue as a result of the pandemic, infrastructure projects and aiding residents with economic recovery as potential uses for the $16.83 million. Pay for essential workers, improving public health facilities and upgrading trails and pathways are also included in the ordinance.
Collier said based on her experience, there’s no better department in the city to manage the federal funds than redevelopment. The department is accustomed to meeting federal guidelines and has full-time professionals who can ensure the money is being spent, with feedback from the council, Mayor Jeff Gahan and others, in the appropriate ways, she said.
“If we do this the right way and think about what’s logical and best for the city of New Albany overall, and don’t worry about who’s in control of this money, we can use this to benefit New Albany for generations to come if it’s used right,” Collier said.
The trio of Blair, Turner and Knable — who voted against the ordinance after several amendments were proposed, most of which failed — argued that the council has the ability to manage $16.83 million.
Knable said the city’s budget is more annually than the federal funding, and that council members could call additional meetings if needed to manage the expenditures. He also added that the scope of projects included in the federal bill cover a wide variety of needs.
“This money was not intended solely for redevelopment,” Knable said.
The Jeffersonville City Council last month established a fund for the ARP deposits with the understanding the body would vote on any appropriations for spending the money.
Other local governments such as Clark County and Floyd County have also established a fund for ARP deposits, but haven’t solidified plans for how the money will be used.
Blair said by most accounts, the legislative body is expected to hold the main responsibility for appropriations.
“The city council is the fiscal body and that’s our responsibility,” Blair said. “We look at things in a very broad perspective. We look at all aspects of the city.”
The council is more visible and transparent than the redevelopment commission, and it wouldn’t be wise for council members to surrender their oversight of the federal funds, he continued.
“I’m actually insulted that we’re asked to do that,” Blair said. “We’re not being trusted to manage these funds even though we were elected to do that.”
Further guidance on spending the funds is anticipated, which makes the council measure premature, he added.
Applegate listed a number of ways in which the redevelopment commission and department works with the council and administration, and emphasized the need to get the relief funds into the community quickly.
He said he took offense to the suggestion that redevelopment commission members don’t listen to council suggestions or the needs of the public.
“I’m a little bit on the other side that’s offended that you’re thinking that we have zero say in anything that happens in redevelopment, when we do,” Applegate said.
Council members Pat McLaughlin, David Aebersold and Applegate were assigned to a committee earlier this year to explore the rollout of the federal funds. The committee helped prepare the ordinance, which will require approval on third reading.
Aebersold said he backs what the committee proposed, as he expressed his disappointment in the debate.
“It seems we’re not 100% trusting one another on what we’re doing, and that’s really disturbing,” Aebersold said.