Milwaukee residents gather to speak at the city’s ARPA Task Force meeting Saturday. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Residents at a public listening session Saturday urged the city of Milwaukee to spend some of its remaining $92.7 million in federal pandemic relief funds to finally remove sources of lead contamination in the community.
The public hearing, called to seek community input on how the city should spend what remains from its allocation under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), lasted just over two hours. Residents also advocated for funding other projects.
The funds represent “an opportunity for us to do something new,” said Ald Milele Coggs, a task force member, although she cautioned that “we will have to make decisions as to which things to prioritize.” The alderwoman said that Saturday’s meeting, as well as two meetings still to come on the South Side and online, will help city officials make those decisions.
The task force has also sent out a survey online as well as mailing it to certain zip codes, including 53206, where residents may not have seen the online version. Responses to the mailed surveys, however, have been low.
Andrea Fowler, the city’s ARPA director, pointed out that the federal government has placed controls on funds. “That money can only be used for certain specific things,” Fowler explained during the meeting. The federal government’s “very, very long rule that told us what we can and what we can’t do with the money” was about 150 pages, she noted.
“Basically you can use ARPA money to replace public sector revenues,” said Fowler. “That’s money that the city of Milwaukee didn’t get because we weren’t able to collect it by whatever means during the pandemic. And those things are generally to continue city services, which are not just keeping on the lights at city hall.” It can be spent on community health programs, fire departments, trash collection, violence prevention, and other services provided by the city. “You can use the money to address the negative economic impacts from COVID-19,” Fowler added.
The city of Milwaukee received $392.4 million in ARPA funds, $301.7 million of which have already been allocated. So far, just over $74.2 million has been allocated to housing and neighborhoods. Another $62.9 million was spent on community outreach programs. Just over $57.4 million was dedicated to public safety and public health, while $15.1 million went to workforce development. Fowler said that category, while the least funded, was the most impactful because it provided work experience to youth.
Despite the ARPA funds, “We are facing a pretty dire situation over the next coming years because we have a very low level of shared revenue that we receive back from the state,” Fowler said. The city’s pension burden has also contributed to its financial constraints.
What happens to the remaining $92 million in ARPA money may be shaped by what Milwaukeeans speak out about.
Many who spoke during the Saturday meeting were from the Coalition On Lead Emergency (COLE). The coalition has worked to raise awareness of lead poisoning in the community and its effects on youth. Deanna Branch, a COLE member and the first member of the public to speak at the meeting, has a young child who has been hospitalized twice due to lead poisoning since the age of 6. Branch and many other members of COLE who spoke Saturday pointed to the nexus between the city’s enduring lead issues, public safety and historic racism.
“Lead exposure at even low levels can damage a child’s developing brain, and cause life-long, often irreversible, problems that affect education, behavior, and health,” said Branch. “No amount of lead exposure is considered safe. Lead is a public safety issue in many ways.” Branch highlighted that “the highest rates of lead poisoning in Milwaukee are in parts of the city that were historically redlined, and they have housing stock that has not been maintained.”
As the Wisconsin Examiner reported in March 2022, there are clear links between redlining, lead poisoning and the city’s homicides. On both the North Side and South Side of the city, areas with the highest density in homicides also were areas where childhood lead poisoning was highest. Further, those same areas were largely segregated and disinvested in during the days of redlining, which has targeted African American, immigrant, and Jewish communities. Lead poisoning has been linked to learning difficulties, degraded impulse control, and violence.
Several residents who spoke on Saturday live in over 100-year-old homes with lead lateral pipes. Others expressed concerns about lead in paint or contaminating the soil where children play. In 2019, Republican leaders of the state Legislature rejected a budget proposal by Gov. Tony Evers to provide $40 million to replace lead pipes statewide, arguing that too much of the money went to Milwaukee.
Branch and others pushed for the city to allocate $5 million of ARPA funds to address lead contamination. So far, the city has allocated $29 million in ARPA funds already to fund lead-related projects, according to its ARPA dashboard.
Others at Saturday’s meeting pushed for programs to address food waste in Milwaukee, which they argued could help address both hunger and greenhouse gas emissions from landfills. Others sought $300,000 for Monitor Engage Recommend Advocate (MERA), an unarmed crisis intervention team in the city.
Residents also pushed for more budget transparency, raising questions about where money goes once it’s allocated. Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa was disheartened by a lack of confidence in elected officials that some speakers expressed during the Saturday meeting. “I think it’s disappointing,” Zamarripa told Wisconsin Examiner.
Both Coggs and Zamarripa have helped organize ARPA task force meetings, the alder said.
The city’s Budget Director Nik Kovac, a former alderman, was also at the meeting. “It’s disheartening, as someone who’s passionate about public service and in particular representing under represented folks, it’s disheartening,” he said of the criticisms some speakers aired toward city officials. “But I suppose when you come off of decades and generations of leaders that didn’t necessarily look like the constituency that they represent, I can see how it can be frustrating.”
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