Opinion: How Should Ohio Communities Prepare for the Stimulus Bill Relief?
Amazed. Surprised. Unexpected. Thankful. Relieved. These are all reactions from local leaders as they learned of their benefit from the recent American Rescue Plan. With an unprecedented amount of dollars on their way, which doesn’t include the proposed expansive infrastructure plan unveiled this week, the time is now to act quickly and create a strategy for how to best spend these funds at the local level.
What is clear from my vantage point is this: communities that are ready to invest, not merely spend, will be poised for success beyond the life of the stimulus, and hopefully the quick death of COVID and its associated impacts.
About the Stimulus and Allocations
The $1.9 trillion stemming from the stimulus package is set to trickle down to the local government level to assist communities in their coronavirus recovery and stabilization, and prepare them for future fiscal and economic success.
For many communities in Central Ohio, and beyond, this is a serious lifeline; a gigantic boost to general funds that have suffered from declining revenues and previous tax policies that tightened revenue streams like inheritance tax and the local government fund.
As part of the bill, $350 billion was earmarked for state, local and tribal governments, and U.S. territories. Ohio will receive $11.2 billion, one of the largest state disbursements. Half will go to the state and the rest to local governments.
For small communities outside of Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati, it’s more than a lifeline. Cities like Reynoldsburg are figuring out how to use this windfall as an opportunity to really serve and grow their communities. For many communities, the funding equates to up to 20% of the local budget; close to 50% in some cases. This is significant. The one consistent theme I have heard from area mayors and development directors is, “It can’t be soon enough, and the more, the better.”
Putting It To Work
Let’s look at how communities can best put this stimulus money to work. Talking with local leaders, I have been able to categorize the ‘pulse of Ohio’ in three key pillars for spending the money:
Smart Economic Spending Making 1 + 1 = 3
Many communities are thinking holistically, long-term, and aiming for sustainable revenue streams. Their aspirations are looking to direct the stimulus funds towards projects focused on creating jobs, income tax streams, and accelerating the private sector.
What does this look like? It means fast-tracking and prioritizing capital projects that complement private investment, and most are infill projects that stay true to the Insight2050 blueprint Central Ohio has in place.
This also means working with the areas and the infrastructure already in place, enhancing it, and adding elements that attract, retain, and grow our communities and workforce. Reynoldsburg, for example, can direct dollars to existing planned investments near Brice Road and Main Street. Upper Arlington can enhance its roadways and pedestrian realm through capital projects with new private investment in the corridor, Columbus can continue to build on the significant expansion currently taking place on the West Campus of Ohio State.
In summary, take one stimulus dollar, one capital project, and turn it into three dollars for the community by creating new revenue streams. This is sustainable, creative spending, and continues the momentum of public private partnerships in Central Ohio.
In many communities, the focus is more foundational: building infrastructure and catching up on deferred maintenance. Sometimes this isn’t about being sexy or strategic, it is buying the water valve, upgrading sewer and storm infrastructure, or enhancing broadband infrastructure. It’s still unclear whether stimulus dollars can be used for transportation. But as you can imagine, there are a lot of these types of projects throughout the state.
Just recently, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Ohio infrastructure an overall report card grade of C-. In the report, there are notable marks such as Ohio needing $17.0 billion to meet the water quality and human health goals of the Clean Water Act (CWA). Ohio has 44,736 bridges, of which only 58% are rated in good condition according to this report. No less important, spending stimulus dollars to improve failing infrastructure can offer real potential and build greater opportunity for people and places long-term.
One other dominant theme in the minds and airways of Central Ohio communities is promoting equitable housing, which is a separate piece in itself. There are two areas of focus here: the first being affordable housing, and the second is workforce housing. Both are extremely important to the health and economic success of our region.
What is clear is that communities focusing on this topic are in alignment with a housing study coordinated by MORPC, the City of Columbus, and other regional partners. This attention to housing as part of the stimulus addresses the housing stability issue in our region.
Approximately 200,000 households spend more than 30% of their income on housing, and approximately 88,000 spend more than 50%. This not only affects the health and stability of individuals and families, but also challenges our region to find housing aligned with our growing workforce. In many cases this is a supply – rather than demand – issue. Only 5% of rental housing is vacant, and the median days a home is on the market is less than six. Time to take these issues seriously and get building.
Big Bucks can Mean Big Change
This is a time of hope and optimism. With the Biden administration’s short and long-term commitment to help upgrade the country’s ailing infrastructure, fight climate change and bolster federal safety net programs, now is the time for local leaders to think big. To envision how they can emerge from this crisis a more sustainable, economically-viable community. It starts with having a clear plan and path forward. Layering our investments wisely to complement and propel the private sector. And, working to solve some old and current challenges like infrastructure and housing.
This is a juncture where Central Ohio – and America – can’t afford to go down the wrong road. We must make strategic decisions, now, to propel communities forward for the long term, ensuring a bright, happy and healthy future for all Central Ohio citizens.
All images provided by OHM Advisors