COVID-19 Relief Draws Criticism

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Several cities across the nation received federal discretionary dollars last year to help cover COVID-19 related costs.

The Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) payments could be used for public health and safety response efforts, testing sites and economic support initiatives, as long as the costs were “necessary expenditures” incurred due to the pandemic, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. 

Out of the $470 million Chicago received, the city directed $281.5 million to the Chicago Police Department between March 1 and May 15, according to a budget briefing provided to Chicago aldermen in February. This move was met by criticism, including from Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st), who said the money spent on the police department could have been used to directly help Chicagoans struggling from the pandemic. It also came after activist made calls to defund the police amid protests against police brutality in the summer.

The money directed toward CPD accounts for 60% of the city’s relief fund. That figure is more than what New York City used from its CRF portion to cover costs from the NYPD, which is twice as large as Chicago’s police department. It’s also more than what the city of Los Angeles used to reimburse their police department for COVID-19 costs.

Last July, NYC spent about $258 million of the $1.4 billion it received through its CRF on costs related to the police department, according to the city’s latest COVID-19 expenditures report, updated quarterly. That accounts for 18% of the city’s relief fund. These police-related costs were for supplies and materials, equipment, motor vehicle fuel, overtime and salary.

NYC is the largest city in the country, with a population of about 8.3 million. Its police department has about 37,000 police officers and 19,000 civilian employees, according to the NYPD statistics.

LA received nearly $700 million dollars in discretionary funds from the federal government, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The city used nearly $42 million of these CRF dollars to reimburse LAPD COVID-19 costs, according to data provided by Patricia Huber, assistant city administrative officer in LA. This figure accounts for about 6% of the city’s relief fund.

Huber said this figure was for costs covered between March and December 2020. The costs were for efforts in supporting the city’s Emergency Operations and Department Operations Centers. The costs also reflect incurred administrative leave for employees who contracted COVID-19 or needed to quarantine due to being exposed to the virus.

Los Angeles is the country’s second largest city, with a population of nearly 4 million people, according to the LAPD. It has about 14,000 sworn and civilian employees.

COVID-19-related CPD costs between March and May identified for federal reimbursement included performing wellness checks on residents, airport security when travelers had to be screened for the virus, security at the McCormick Place coronavirus field hospital and security at testing sites, according to the budget briefing.

Chicago is the third largest city in the country behind Los Angeles, and has a population of about 2.7 million. The CPD had about 14,000 sworn and civilian members at the end of 2019, according to the CPD.

Without using the CRF, “we would have been forced to pass the burden onto our taxpayers,” the Chicago City Budget office has said.

But La Spata and local groups part of a March 25 virtual town hall said more money needed to be spent on bolstering housing assistance efforts, offering more support to small businesses and residents.

The city has awarded more than $100 million in assistance to small businesses amid the pandemic, according to the budget office. It also approved more than $94 million for homeless and housing assistance and $300 million for public health response.

But La Spata said more community investment is needed, which could have come out of the dollar amount directed toward the CPD.

“Those dollars were meant for the health and stability of our neighbors, not reimbursing extraneous CPD costs,” La Spata said.

The city has spent a total of about $315 million of its relief fund on personnel costs for Chicago’s first responders. The city directed $25 million to the fire department, $8 million to the Office of Emergency Management and Communications and the $281.5 million figure to the police department, according to the budget briefing.

The city budget office has said throughout the pandemic the city’s first responders have “stepped up and kept our communities safe — from performing wellness checks to securing testing sites and quarantine facilities.”

But La Spata questioned the effectiveness of sending officers to testing sites for security and said wellness checks should be done by mental health professionals.

As guidance for the next round of federal relief through the American Rescue Plan Act is in the works, La Spata said “we cannot afford to let that be spent without transparency, inclusion and equity.”

That’s why he and other local groups have launched a new coalition, Right to Recovery. It calls on “people with lived experience” to have a say in where the next round of federal funding goes, according to Dixon Romeo, campaign director for United Working Families, a political organization advocating for affordable housing, quality jobs and public education.

The effort includes a survey to elicit feedback from Chicagoans on how the next round of federal aid should be spent.

One hypothetical question in the survey asks what one would do with $1,000 to spend across nine general categories in the city’s budget. Some of the categories include community services, infrastructure, police services, streets and sanitation.

Another question lists ideas about how the next round of relief funding could be spent to help communities recover from the pandemic, asking the surveyed to rank them. The ideas range from free early childhood education for all children under five, to reopening public clinics, creating 20,000 summer youth jobs, debt forgiveness and housing assistance.

”People in our communities should be consulted and ultimately thought about, “Romeo said. “That’s why we’re really trying to push for community involvement, so we can get the mayor and city council to listen to people in the communities and give them what has been needed for years, especially in this last year.”

The American Rescue Plan Act will provide each state with funds for capital projects, emergency funding, homeowners assistance, rental assistance and small business credit, according to the act. Other parts of the act include an increased child tax credit amount and another round of economic impact payments. While La Spata said guidance for how the money can be spent is still in the works, the Better Government Association reported the plan will set more flexible spending guidelines than previous state and local relief.

The hope for the Right for Recovery campaign and survey is “to get the Mayor to do the right thing and put some of this money in places we know need it,” Romeo said.

 “Because folks are out here hurting and as someone who does community organizing every single day, I see it on a daily basis,” he said.