Who thought it was a good idea to throw $36 million dollars at the government of Woonsocket?

With that question, I mean Woonsocket as representative of municipal governments generally.

The city is in the midst of the process of figuring out how to spend the $36 million dollars the federal government will send its way as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).  You’ll recall that the purpose of the act is to “deliver immediate economic relief.”  When it comes to municipalities, the goal is ” to remedy this mismatch between rising costs and falling revenues.”

Of course, the money is moving at the speed of government and is therefore arriving well after it was actually needed.  Thus, Woonsocket finds it makes sense to spend $250,000 for “an ice skating rink with synthetic ice” and $53,000 for “ergonomic chairs in the city council chambers.”

In short, Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats transformed a once-in-a-lifetime calamity for the people our country into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for government officials to buy themselves goodwill and future favors.  Do what we may, the money is going to arrive, so the best that can be done is to spend it wisely in a way that pays it back to the people whose progeny will have to pay off the debt, but that doesn’t mean the whole transaction should have been started in the first place.

The debate in Woonsocket is helpful also in the degree to which it shows that the stakes are actually much higher:

Many of the people who spoke at Monday night’s council meeting want to see a portion of the city’s share of federal coronavirus relief funding go towards affordable housing and helping the city’s homeless, something not included in the proposal.

“What would you do if that was you, where would you turn? Because the city you’re living in is turning its back on you,” said another speaker during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Keep in mind that the ARPA included billions of dollars given directly to individuals and families, along with billions more in rental assistance.  Again, the money to municipalities is specifically intended to shore them up during budgetary hardship (although the risk has arguably long since passed, by now).  It shouldn’t be treated simply as a one-time windfall for general spending across political demands.

Helping people who have stumbled over some obstacle in our society or economy is desperately important, but a city government isn’t able to give them what they really need.  Furthermore, using government’s “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to give it central responsibility for their housing changes the relationship between the people and public officials.  The best way for Woonsocket to help those struggling to find housing is by addressing the causative obstacles, which include (among other things) infrastructure, taxation, and regulation.

Like the dye a patient drinks before undergoing a medical imaging procedure, ARPA funds are showing how incredibly inadequate our local civic systems are to make these decisions.  All the players react mainly to that which is most obviously in front of them, and none have incentive to address non-flashy, fundamental imbalances or to resolve challenges in a way that reduce their own importance.


Featured image by Matt Collamer on Unsplash.

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