African-American roundtable wants public to have more say in ARPA funds

A local community group is again calling for federal pandemic relief funding not to go into Milwaukee City Police coffers.

Instead, the group wants to get feedback from residents on how the next round of US Bailout Act the money should be spent through a participatory budget process.

“We believe these funds should be used to expand and improve the quality of life for people, especially black people in Milwaukee,” said Devin Anderson, of the African American Roundtable, a community advocacy group. “…We believe these are our funds, and we should have a say in how these funds are used.

The city received $394.2 million in ARPA money. The Milwaukee City Council and then-Mayor Tom Barrett decided last year how to spend the first half.

The second half – totaling around $197 million – is expected to be in the city’s coffers in June. Some of that money, the group says, will go to fill budget holes.

Earlier this month, the The joint board recommended $75 million in ARPA funds be used to fill a shortfall in the 2023 budget to maintain service levels and bolster city pension commitments, including police and fire. Mayor Cavalier Johnson originally offered $160 million — $80 million in 2023 and 2024 — to maintain those services.

AART and several community leaders held a press conference and rally outside the advocacy group’s Northwest Side office to demand that the city adopt participatory budgeting. It is a democratic process allowing community residents to decide how to spend part of a public budget.

Almost 300 participatory budget initiatives declared and confirmed exist at the city and county levels, including districts and neighborhoods across the United States, according to the Participatory budget project website.

After:Milwaukee City Council aims to upgrade streetlights and maintain city services in next round of ARPA federal funding

Markasa Tucker-Harris, Executive Director of the African American Roundtable, speaks at a press conference and rally hosted by the African American Roundtable to seek feedback on how the city of Milwaukee spends American Rescue Plan Act funds, at the AART office in Brown Deer on Thursday.

Embracing participatory budgeting would be “transformative change” for the city, said Markasa Tucker-Harris, executive director of AART. This change will end the status quo by allowing residents most affected by the issues to participate in the decision-making process, she said.

“We know the answers to our own problems. But if we don’t have the resources that are rightfully ours to make these things happen, it’s hard to address the root causes of violence and poverty,” Tucker-Harris said.

From left, Debra Gillispie and Kejuane Jennings, both of Milwaukee, and Shameka Moore, the African American Roundtable Office Manager, participate in the rally in Brown Deer on Thursday, May 26, 2022.

The city, Tucker-Harris added, should be better stewards of taxpayers’ money, instead of using tricky accounting methods to plug budget holes. Continuing to invest in policing doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for decades because people are still dying, she said.

“But yet we continue to pour money into a system that doesn’t address why these kids are doing what they’re doing,” Tucker-Harris said. “The police don’t get to the root causes. They never can and never will.”

The police, Anderson said, take up a significant portion of the city’s departmental budget, about 46 percent, and the city’s growing retirement problems stem from an overreliance on the police. Police and firefighters, he added, make up 44% of the city’s active workforce, but account for 80% of the the cost of the city pension. And in this year’s budget, the city’s police department is receiving more than $280 million, Anderson said.

“The cost of policing doesn’t allow for investment in other services,” Anderson said, adding that defunding the police and using ARPA funds to invest in people is a way “to ‘avoid austerity budgets’.

ARPA funds, he said, could be used to address this city’s affordable housing deficit, provide down payment or rent assistance, youth jobs and activities, and infrastructure improvements. , including repairing potholes.

ARPA’s first round of funding allocated $26 million for lead paint reduction, $3 million for lead reduction workforce development, and $2 million dollars to improve the energy efficiency of houses being depolluted.

Richard Diaz from Lead Emergency Coalition, hope it happens for the second round. Diaz wants ARPA funds to be spent on more health awareness and commitment for testing children with elevated lead levels, building capacity and training business owners in color to perform lead reduction work and the elimination of “cost sharing” for service line replacement.

Diaz said the cost of replacing lead lines is passed on to homeowners, who live in areas with the highest lead levels but are among the poorest.

“They shouldn’t have to pay a dime,” he said.

AART has been advocating for participatory budgeting since 2019 when it launched its LiberateMKE Campaign.

Anderson said his group will continue to target those council members. The group will organize education and awareness campaigns with residents to help lobby members of the common council. He said aldermen must hear from and be accountable to the people who elected them.

The group wants the city to allocate a portion of ARPA dollars to each Alderman’s District, which will have its own participatory budgeting process.

“We see the mayor responding downtown. He didn’t respond to that community in the same way,” Anderson said. “That’s why we interview neighborhood by neighborhood. We know neighborhood by neighborhood; district by district, there are different priorities on what they want to see funded.

La Risa Lynch is a community affairs reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email him at [email protected].

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