Stop me if you heard this one. Government officials are sitting on a pile of money and cannot agree how to spend it. What do they do? They hire someone to help them spend it and, nominally, ask the public for their ideas. Through inaction and delay the timer on the money runs out and the money is lost.
That could be the case if Montgomery city and county officials can not find a use for $85 million in Federal dollars available through the American Rescue Plan Act. The city/county, which have pooled their funds, have engaged a firm, Levitate Financial, to set up a website for public input (montgomerythrive.org). I doubt that the county/city officials care at all about what the public thinks, but they are certainly in disagreement among themselves on how best to spend the money. County Commissioner Dan Harris, who uses words like: all, only, never, and always more than I do, dislikes even the idea that there should be agreement among the players on how the money is spent in one breath and in the next calls for a “binding agreement” before a single penny can be spent. I’m pretty sure the latter is the understood position of everyone at the table with a brain. I mean who amongst the city or county leadership is for spending federal dollars without an agreement?
The point of the Montgomery Thrive initiative is to gather input from the community and your input is encouraged. The money is somewhat restricted to: support public health expenditures, address negative economic impacts caused by the Covid-19 public health emergency, replace lost public sector revenue, and invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure. One of the projects that city/county officials have agreed to is body cameras for law enforcement, not just to archive emergency encounters with the public but also to livestream the footage to a mental health crisis center (the other big ticket item officials agreed to) wherein trained mental health counselors can provide remote guidance to responding officers. Even with the guidelines the Montgomery Thrive website describes “broad flexibility” that recipients have to spend the money. I’m not sure how body cameras fit into the aforementioned parameters, but I do not believe this is a bad idea. This would be even better if the Alabama Supreme Court had not neutered the Open Records Act recently by ruling that law enforcement agencies are under no legal obligation to release footage to the public from body cameras. Thus even if each officer and patrol car is equipped with a livestream capable camera the public will continue to be shut out when police officers, such as Aaron Cody Smith in Montgomery, carry out illegal extra-judicial killings of civilians. Let us not forget, Smith did not even bother to turn on either his government provided body camera or dashboard camera during the incident.
I’m not sure about replacing lost public sector revenue but if it were up to me we could create some lost public sector revenue by waiving all fees associated with public records requests at the city and county level. This would hardly make a dent in the $85 million to replace, but it would mean a lot to the public; who already pays for those records and then is charged again when we want a copy.
Though I’m sure it falls outside the purview of ARPA, the city would do well to repair or replace the walking paths at the Montgomery Zoo. My wife, who has arthritis and gets around with the use of a cane, and I are members at the zoo. Two weeks ago we were there and she tripped over a break in the concrete and bloodied her knee and leg on the disgusting concrete path.
While the people in charge might not know exactly what to do with this money they are asking for input. Get involved. It does no good to bitch and complain about how ineffective the government is if you don’t lift a finger and give them your opinion when they ask for it. Tell your city council and county commission representatives how you think this money should be spent. It is no guarantee that they will listen, but you can at least say that you did your part. I say, give them more input than they can use.