City allocates federal pandemic relief funding, but council votes down amendment for hazard pay

The interior of Columbus City Hall in Columbus, Ind., pictured Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018,Mike Wolanin | The Republic Mike Wolanin | The Republic

COLUMBUS, Ind. — The Columbus City Council voted Tuesday to allocate federal COVID-19 relief funds, but council members differed on whether or not to include hazard pay to city employees who have been working in-person amid the pandemic.

The council voted 4-3 to approve a resolution allocating over $4.2 million in funds received from the American Rescue Plan’s Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund into three categories: response to public health emergency, making up for a reduction in the city’s revenue and water and sewer infrastructure.

Democrats Elaine Hilber, Grace Kestler and Jerone Wood voted against the resolution. Republicans Tim Shuffett, Frank Miller and Dave Bush voted for it, as did Democrat Tom Dell.

Prior to voting on the resolution, Hilber made a motion to amend the resolution in order to allocate up to $400,000 in funds as hazard pay for city workers who continued to come into work in person amid the pandemic.

“I don’t think that a ‘thank you’ and a pat on the back is honestly enough,” she said. “I feel like we need to put our money where our mouth is and actually show people appreciation for what they did.”

The motion failed 3-4, with Kestler and Wood voting for Hilber’s amendment and the other members voting against it.

The approved resolution allocates the $4,285,248 in funding into three categories:

1. Response to public health emergency: $2,185,248.

City Director of Administration and Community Development Mary Ferdon said this could include costs related to the COVID-19 Community Task Force website, technology upgrades for virtual meetings, housing, substance abuse funding, emergency needs or administrative costs.

The city is also partnering with the county on a joint application for local not-for-profits to apply to receive funds replacing their lost revenue. They plan to make the application available online Sept. 1 and keep it open through Sept. 30, with grants awarded by Dec. 1.

2. Reduction in revenue/revenue replacement: $1.1 million

The ARP Act states that cities can use their allocations to provide for government services “to the extent of the reduction in revenue of such metropolitan city … due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Ferdon said that $1.1 million is a conservative amount; the U.S. Department of Treasury estimated that they could ask for more. However, the city expected that council members would prefer to put more funds into the public health emergency response.

The funds make up for revenue lost, with a large portion coming from the parks and recreation department and The Commons.

3. Water/sewer infrastructure: $1 million

This would likely include a water main replacement on First Street and work on Fourth Street east of Franklin Street, as well as other projects, Ferdon said.

For the complete story, see Thursday’s Republic.