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Waco seeks input on COVID-19 relief spending

Waco seeks input on COVID-19 relief spending

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The city of Waco is taking public feedback for another few days on how to spend federal COVID-19 relief money.

Waco has been awarded $34 million in American Rescue Plan funding by the U.S. Treasury, including $17 million the city intends to distribute for small businesses and individuals. City budget staff launched a website using a program called Balancing Act where residents can choose what programs they support spending the money on and leave comments explaining their decisions. The site will remain active until Thursday, and budget director Nicholas Sarpy said Tuesday it had received 270 submissions.

“I think that’s a good number, considering this is the first time we’ve ever used this tool to get information out to the public,” Sarpy said.

The site does not record users’ identities but does ask for each submitter’s ZIP code. Sarpy said most responders have come from 76707, 76712, 76710 and 76708 so far.

The city will commit the funding to various projects over the next three years and will have until 2026 to spend it all, he said.

Sarpy said his department will compile the submissions for the city manager’s office and develop a plan during the first week of October, then give Waco City Council an update during a budget and audit meeting Oct. 12.

During a budget and audit meeting held Sept. 14, Sarpy said about 30 people had completed submissions, and many were interested in funding affordable housing and home rehab programs to pay for home improvements.

He said Tuesday that people suggested an average of $2.8 million for new affordable housing, $1.5 million for home rehab and a little over $1 million for down payment assistance.

One person recommended a universal basic income program for low income families.

District 4 City Council Member Kelly Palmer said housing is especially important in her district. More than a third of all Waco homes built before lead paint was banned in 1978 are in her district, Palmer said.

“It feels like our housing issues are just going to be exacerbated, and the only way for us to take care of our housing stock is to invest big money into them,” Palmer said. “This is an exciting opportunity. We have significant cash coming in from the federal government that we could use to shore up our quality housing for our residents.

She said her submission recommends spending most of the $17 million on down payment assistance and housing rehab. She said Waco sorely needs more emergency, transitional and public housing.

Palmer said she is excited for the city to try the same approach for gathering public input on other large-scale funding decisions, and possibly for the city’s annual budget process.

“I think once we have all the data we’ll be able to have this information much better inform what community outreach processes look like to really ensure we’re getting a wide range of voices from all across the community and a higher response rate,” she said.

Sarpy said some people have requested the city use the funding for road work, but that would not comply with U.S. Treasury guidelines on how American Rescue Plan funding can be used.

Palmer said she suspects road work would be high on residents’ priority list if the city were to use the Balancing Act input process for the annual budget.

“Both roads and sidewalks are something the council is consistently hearing from residents on,” Palmer said. “Creating roads and paving new sidewalks are some of the most expensive things we can possibly invest money into.”

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