Washington Evening Journal
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Advocates make new appeal for Washington ARPA money
Escucha Mi Voz requests $500 utility bill relief for up to 600 residents
WASHINGTON — Advocates asked Washington City Council members Tuesday night to consider spending $300,000 of the local government’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money on relief payments for the utility bills of city households below certain income thresholds. The cost represents just under a third of the city’s remaining ARPA funds, totaled at $990,879.16 according to a financial report from the same meeting.
The group, called Escucha Mi Voz, fought for direct payments to workers excluded from federal stimulus payments last year, but failed to convince decision-makers in the city or county of Washington. Echoing the group’s approach to previous proposals, members packed into the council’s chambers Tuesday night, many of them holding signs to express their support while representatives spoke.
The new pitch has a few key differences from last year’s. It does not specify excluded workers as the recipients, instead opening the doors to anyone at or below 300% of the federal poverty level. It has a higher total price tag — $300,000, versus the $200,000 requested for direct payments — but would impact hundreds of additional people. Advocates said payouts for up to 600 households would make a difference for at least 1,000 Washington residents.
The proposal is based on a similar plan approved by the city of West Liberty in November, where municipal officials used ARPA funds to allocate $400 apiece to 300 families for utility bill payments after their own Escucha Mi Voz campaign. The proposal for Washington Tuesday night requested $500 payments to cover 600 households, although speakers said numbers were negotiable.
“(The amount) was an estimate or range, kind of, that we had given,” Escucha Mi Voz representative Oscar Flores said, translated by Claire Lewandowski. “West Liberty took some information from the federal poverty guidelines, so we’d leave it up to the city of Washington to decide what would be appropriate.”
In public comments, a string of Washington residents said a $500 boost could have a monumental impact for families still struggling to recover from the effects of a pandemic and skyrocketing costs of living in recent years.
“I contracted COVID early on in the pandemic, and it hasn’t been an easy road for me,” said Escucha Mi Voz member Felix Amigon in another translated comment. “It is hard for a lot of us to move forward, especially with paying for bills, paying for rent, paying for food … we are here to ask for some relief to our community.”
Several said it was hard to overstate the magnitude of potential relief.
“Last month, I paid like, $300, only for gas and electricity,” Washington resident Stephane Soumaoro said. “Something like 45% of my wage, only for gas and electricity. I have water, sewer, and many other things to do. So 500 is something. Trust me, it is not everything to help everybody, but it can do many things for us.”
The makeup of city leadership has changed since the last request from Escucha Mi Voz in April of 2022. In the interim, Council Member Steve Gault, who opposed the earlier proposal, resigned and was replaced by newly elected Council Member Ivan Rangel, who has not stated an opinion on the matter of relief checks.
Additionally, a leave of absence by Mayor Jaron Rosien means the tiebreaking vote (if council members reach an impasse) would fall to Mayor Pro Tem Millie Youngquist, who voted in favor of the direct payment plan that failed to pass last April.
According to public records, West Liberty’s model delegated the money to a local nonprofit to process applications and cut checks on the city’s behalf. The resulting grants came with several stipulations: applicants had to live within the city or use its municipal utility services, had to submit a utility bill from within 90 days of applying for funds, and had to exhaust all other payment relief options before requesting ARPA dollars, among other requirements like federal poverty-based guidelines mentioned above.
It’s not yet clear how closely Washington would model West Liberty’s distribution plan, or whether such a proposal will even return for consideration at future council meetings.
Continued conversations would require a request to place it on a meeting agenda from at least two council members, according to the city’s attorney. Asked after the meeting if any planned to make that request, all members of the body declined to comment, although multiple said they were “interested in seeing it on a future agenda” in follow-up interviews.
Bringing it back up for discussion does not mean the proposal from Escucha Mi Voz will necessarily pass. Some council members’ critiques of previous direct payment plans may apply to the utility relief proposals now brought before the city.
In a 2022 meeting, Council Member Illa Earnest said “a government entity (was) not the correct people” to address the issue of excluded workers, while Council Member Fran Stigers said the city should prioritize infrastructure investments instead.
“I know that people don’t like the word infrastructure, but if we don’t have infrastructure, we don’t have a community,” he said last spring. “You don’t have sewer, you don’t have water, you’re not nothing.”