GARY — The Gary Common Council is taking a fresh look at how the city should spend the first half of its $80.3 million American Rescue Plan allocation.
During a Zoom meeting Tuesday, the council, in a unanimous, 9-0 vote, moved to send the city's 2022 budget and 2022 salary ordinances, as well as a spending plan for roughly $40 million of the city's American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) allocation, back to committee.
The ordinances and plan will be heard over two joint Ways and Means Committee and Finance Committee meetings set for 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.
Before the matter was finalized, Councilman Clorius Lay, D-At large, asked what the cooperation was like between the council and the mayor's office when it comes to the spending plan.
Council President William Godwin, D-1st, said a "very productive meeting" was held regarding premium pay for the city's essential workers, as well as depositing $10.15 million into the city's general fund to make up revenue lost in 2020 compared to 2019.
The rest of the plan, however, was unveiled by Gary Mayor Jerome Prince during a Sept. 13 Gary Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
During the luncheon, Prince said a task force helped develop the plan, and said the council "worked hand in hand with Deputy Mayor (Trent) McCain and the ARPA committee to try to solidify the plans that we talked about today."
Godwin said he was "highly disturbed," and felt disrespected upon hearing the plan was a collaborative effort, given for six months, council members asked to be involved in creating the spending plan.
He told The Times the council was not invited to a meeting until August, where premium pay and revenue loss were discussed.
"I was taken aback to sit there at the Gary chamber luncheon and hear this for the first time, " Godwin told The Times by phone. "We, from the beginning, talked about having a collaborative process. This wasn't collaborative at all. But we want what's in the best interest of the city, and so we're going to look at it from scratch."
He added it is unfortunate, "that they've chosen to operate in isolation and exclusion, as opposed to working together."
Gary spokesman Michael Gonzalez said the council was aware of "two of the major buckets,"of the proposed spending plan — premium pay and revenue recovery — before the chamber luncheon.
"The mayor chose that chamber meeting to offer a preview of the proposal with the chamber. Then, he shared it with the general public a few days later through the State of the City (address)," Gonzalez said. "Those proposals came from suggestions that were made by the business advisory council."
Developing the proposed spending plan was a collaborative effort between Prince, "his internal group and a bunch of folks from the community," and "not necessarily the council at the planning stages because we wanted to have a nice, solid proposal that we could share with the council. A more complete proposal," Gonzalez said.
"Certainly this is all just a proposal," he added. "This is not a full, final plan."
McCain will attend the joint committee meetings scheduled for next week, and will, "be prepared to share more information about the proposal," Gonzalez said.
No 'rubber stamp' OK
Gonzalez also added Godwin and Council Vice President Tai Adkins, D-4th, were invited to meet with the administration last Friday, but "backed out" of the meeting.
The meeting, Godwin told The Times, was canceled "because they had already announced their plan."
"So what is there to discuss when you've already done press releases?" he asked.
The council will amend the spending plan as necessary, to "ensure that the views of the council members who represent residents across the city are incorporated into the final plan," Godwin said. He later said he has yet to see Prince's plan in writing.
"We're not just going to rubber stamp anything — certainly nothing that we were not even given an opportunity to be part of planning," he added.
During Tuesday's council meeting, Councilman Michael A. Brown, D-At large, expressed concern over finalizing the spending plan, noting the Hammond Common Council has passed its ARPA plan, "with no problems."
"I think we have a great responsibility to get this done," Brown said. "So I don't know where the finger goes, how it goes, all I know is that I'm seeing another city making progress, getting things done, and we have the same responsibility. So whatever it takes on both sides."
To Brown's point, Godwin said in speaking with a Hammond council member, he was told that city's council began meeting with Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. in March.
It's frustrating, Godwin said, adding one of the differences between the cities is McDermott attends council meetings, whereas Prince doesn't.
"He is fully engaged in the legislative process," Godwin said of McDermott. "So, it's not a middleman that's escorting information between him and the council."
Broadly, Godwin said the council wants to use the funds "to do things that are beneficial long term for the city."
"Any kind of infrastructure we can do to our buildings, ways we can help small businesses, and help with food insecurity, with rental assistance," he said. "There's a lot of different things that are of interest to different members. Sewer line repairs, and so forth."
Special public hearings will be held on the ARPA plan over the next four to six weeks to gather feedback and look at projects from scratch, Godwin said.
"We're excited about the funding," he said. "We're not going to let this roadblock of lack of communication stop us from getting things done for the public."