GRAND RAPIDS, (WOOD) — After nearly a year of debate and analysis, the Kent County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Thursday on a package to allocate more than $108 million in funds received through the American Rescue Plan Act.
That money comes from a bill passed by Congress and President Joe Biden in March 2021 to provide $350 billion in aid to state, local and tribal governments to spur economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Board Chair Stan Stek and Board Minority Vice-Chair Stephen Wooden led the project. In total, more than 300 different projects were proposed, requesting approximately $3 billion.
Prior to the vote, Stek addressed the fact that because the sheer volume of proposals that many people would be left disappointed.
“We had 300 projects and we could only fund a few,” Stek said, saying he believed the board did its best to be “equitable and fair.”
Thirty projects were allocated funding, totaling approximately $108 million. Some $11 million in ARPA funds were allocated in previous rounds earlier this year. The county has about $8.7 million left to allocate, which is being held “in reserve” for now. According to ARPA, all funds must be allocated by the end of 2024 and must be spent by December 2026. The package was approved 18-0, with one commissioner, Mandy Bolter, absent from the meeting.
Thursday’s vote approved funding for the following projects:
- $17.5 million for the Kent County Revolving Housing Fund
- $500,000 for the Kent County Equitable Housing Initiative
- $500,000 for the Four Star Theatre Renovation
- $4 million for the Boston Square Hub via Amplify GR
- $2 million for the Krause Memorial Library in Rockford
- $1 million for the Junior Achievement Free Enterprise Center
- $2 million for the Nourish Tomorrow Advancement Campaign at Feeding America West Michigan
- $1 million for increasing access to veterinary care via Community Spay Neuter Initiative Partnership (C-SNIP)
- $3,923,356 for a new Behavioral Health Crisis Center via Kent County and Network 180
- $15 million for the Kent County Parks Greenway Project
- $2,837,500 for the School Safety Radio Network via Kent County Sheriff’s Office
- $6 million for the medical examiner facility
- $3.8 million for lead remediation via Kent County Health Department
- $1.5 million to expand the West Michigan Sports Complex
- $6 million for the Wyoming City Center Bridge and Trail Activation
- $6 million for The Grand Agricultural Center of West Michigan
- $6 million for the John Ball Zoo
- $1 million to renovate the west entry and gathering space at the Grand Rapids Public Museum
- $4 million for the Kent County Domestic Violence Action Network
- $8.5 million for the Kent County Road Commission
- $500,000 for capital enhancements for facilities serving older adults via Area Agency on Aging West Michigan
- $1 million for the United Methodist Community House
- $3 million for PFAS remediation and extending water access in Cascade Township
- $1 million for workforce development via Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation
- $1 million to expand the West Michigan Construction Institute
- $138,000 for SMB and Workforce Development support and training via Wyoming/Kentwood Chamber of Commerce
- $1.5 million for the Hispanic Center of West Michigan
- $4 million for the Urban League of West Michigan
- $1 million for reducing health disparities in Kent County’s African American community
- $2 million for the “Live. Work. Thrive.” Program via AYA Youth Collective
While many commissioners voiced their displeasure with the final product, Stek believes it was a fair compromise.
“There is not a single member of this board who would have written this allocation,” Stek said. “Those of you that represent the urban core had a spread that looked one way. Those of you that represent the suburban doughnut had a spread that looked quite different. And those of you that represent the rural areas had something that also looked quite different.”
Of the commissioners to comment, Emily Brieve seemed to be the most optimistic of the allocations bundle.
“We’re putting our best foot forward here and I think it’s a gift. It’s a gift for the community,” Brieve said. “I do think there are transformational projects in part of this and I’m really excited to see what comes about.”
The biggest sticking point was about an alleged lack of funding for minority groups. Commissioner Michelle McCloud didn’t mince words when she voiced her frustrations.
“I’m pissed this morning. I’m very upset with that this is. And I think that we all need to be held to account because this was not supposed to be political. This was supposed to be where we listen to the community,” McCloud said. “It made me pretty upset to see that the community that bore the brunt of the pandemic is so minimally represented in this list. … I’ve highlighted some things that were not even on the staff recommendations, were not even rated highly from our exercise that we did at the beginning of this. And it’s very clear that those projects got way more funding than the (inner-city) community that we reached out to.”
McCloud was one of several commissioners to specifically highlight a proposal from The Diatribe as one that was left out. The proposal, which received high marks during the review process, would have used $2 million to renovate a new facility in the Burton Heights neighborhood, allowing the organization to help grow its programs and partnership that promote economic development and serve as a cultural hub for artists and other creative projects.
“Two weeks ago, we had a $2 million proposal for The Diatribe. Today, it’s zero. And it’s about power, privilege and punishment,” Commissioner David Bulkowski said.
Said Commissioner Phil Skaggs: “The majority party deleted a plan for The Diatribe, not based on merit but based on politics and based on fear that people would be primaried. It’s shameful. It’s embarrassing.”
Another controversial proposal: covering funding for Rockford’s Krause Memorial Library.
“Every community in Kent County who has wanted a library has paid for it. It took Caledonia two elections to pay for their library and now we’re going to give $2 million to Rockford?” Bulkowski said. “What makes Rockford better than all of the other communities that have paid for their own building?”
Skaggs, who represents portions of Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids, also drew attention to the library proposal.
“I called my city manager; we passed our library in East Grand Rapids. It’s a beautiful library. A lot of people come there. You’re all welcome. … But we paid for it. That’s how KDL works. But votes needed to be had. And so, it’s on there,” Skaggs said. “We had a real opportunity to take this money that come to us, to do what it was meant for, to make real, transformational change in our community. To deal with the economic effects of the pandemic, to deal with longstanding disparities. And I know people tried, but we just didn’t quite get there.”
There was pushback on the other side, as well. Conservative Commissioner Tom Antor raised his concerns about what ARPA funds mean in the long run.
“This is monopoly money,” Antor said. “None of this stuff that we are buying is paid for.”