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Honolulu City Council weighs how to spend federal COVID funds

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The Honolulu City Council is deciding how to spend the first $193 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds that the city received in June to combat the public health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Honolulu was awarded $386 million from ARPA. The other half of the funds will be distributed to the city next year.

The Council is mandated in the city charter to allocate city funds in the budget. However, there are often situations where the city receives additional funding after the budgeting process is over. In those cases the Council has three options. It can create a supplemental budget; pass a resolution; or for uncomplicated funds, it can receive a letter from the executive branch and have 15 days to object.

In this case the Council is expected to take on a resolution in the coming weeks. While the Council knew that the funds were expected from the federal government during the budgeting process, it allocated only about $28 million of the fund, notably $20 million in the operating fund for homeless and housing services and nonprofits. The ARPA allocation process is a collaborative effort between Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s office and the Council.

During a joint Executive Management-Housing and the Economy committee meeting Thursday, the Council reviewed what the $387 million from the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was spent on and discussed the gaps that could be addressed with the new ARPA funding.

The Stakeholder Advisory Group for the Select Committee on Economic Assistance and Revitalization put together a report for the Council that is meant to guide the use of federal funds to revitalize and diversify the economy. The report focused on six items: increasing affordable rental inventory, adjusting the tourism industry, implementing the island’s climate action plan, increasing broadband capacity, partnering with the University of Hawaii and improving the efficiency of existing city services.

Anna Stone, with the Salvation Army, was part of the group, and she emphasized the need for the city to better disperse relief funds.

“I would like this assistance to go out as fast as we can give them out,” she said.

“Honestly, it was so difficult for agencies to be giving away this money — the bureaucracy, the red tape, the reporting was just a huge encumbrance for my staff. There were times when an application would take eight hours to process.”

While the Council did not make any decisions during the meeting on what ARPA funds would be spent on, it listened to presentations on how money could be invested in critical island infrastructure.

Blue Planet Foundation, a clean-energy organization, was asked to weigh in with ideas. Some of the more substantial proposals were $10 million to establish a loan fund to support rental energy efficiency upgrades, $850,000 for installing more electric vehicle charging stations and $1 million for clean-energy job training, particularly in the hospitality industry.

The state’s broadband strategy officer, Burt Lum, also gave a presentation on plans for digital equity and how the city could work with the state using ARPA funds to expand broadband connectivity.

The members present at the meeting were generally enthusiastic about the ideas.

The Council is expected to continue the discussion on the use of ARPA funding during another meeting Wednesday.

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