Members of the brand-new White House Office of Urban Affairs (there hasn’t been such an Office before!) came to Cleveland to learn from us and others in Ohio about what has worked and what is not working with the implementation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds. (Think ‘stimulus.’) More than 50 representatives of government agencies, nonprofits, and philanthropies throughout Ohio attended the half-day session held in the Cleveland Foundation’s Minter Conference Center. They came from Youngstown, Cincinnati, Columbus, Lorain, Toledo, Akron, and Cleveland.
The Fed sent representatives from the Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, and Energy. And the State of Ohio sent representatives from the Departments of Housing, Commerce, and Energy. Mayor Jackson, Sherrod Brown, and Dennis Kucinich sent representatives as well.
The messages from the White House were:
- The door is open.
- We are listening.
- We want to learn from you.
- Be bold in your vision for recovery.
The information from this session will be shared with the White House Interagency Working Group on Urban Policy, and be used in making program improvements in 2010 and in developing the 2011 federal budget.
As the facilitator for one of the two breakout groups (mine was Energy/Workforce Development/Job Creation; the other was Foreclosure Crisis and Land-use Revitalization), I can report a very energetic discussion with people eager to share both the challenges they faced as well as the successes they were seeing. The White House representatives pushed again and again for specific examples of barriers to implementation – and they got an earful. Plus they all left their e-mails for follow up.
Cleveland was chosen as one representative region, and the second in the White House’s “Learning Through Recovery” listening tour. There will be a select few other stops before a report is compiled and distributed. While I can’t possibly chronicle all that was said, I can report that there were many ‘kudos’ given for ARRA and for the administration’s commitment to listen. On the critical side, here’s a few of the key points that surfaced in my group.
- Washington doesn’t know what’s needed at the local level. It’s a disincentive to boldness if we are threatened with an investigation when we try to be creative or innovative beyond the very narrow restrictions of many regulations. Give us more flexibility in the use of funds as we see what is working in our different communities.
- Reporting is a nightmare. Many low-bid contractors do not have the capacity to do the paperwork needed and cities must take on this burden, with no additional support. Let us add administrative costs above the bid to cover this expense. Also, coordinate the application reporting requirements of different federal agencies. There is so much duplicate entry required. Reciprocity is needed. Can’t information get shared electronically?
- Write the guidelines and reporting requirements in English!
- HUD is great at coordinating and connecting services and agencies. Other departments should model HUD.
- There should be a vision of a healthy community to guide planning and allow for a holistic approach in the use of funds rather than a siloed one. Healthy communities need healthy people and livable environments. It’s not only about infrastructure.
- There needs to be a strategy for a ‘soft landing’ when the stimulus funding ends.
The White House representatives seemed pleased with the meeting and promised to stay in touch. The foundation will link to the report when it is finalized.