A view of downtown Lancaster, Pa., from the General Hospital parking garage (Photo via Exithacan/Flickr Commons)
LANCASTER, Pa. — A group of Lancaster residents who say they’re concerned about the lack of clarity on how county officials plan to spend $106 million in American Rescue Plan funds are turning to the public for help.
The advocacy group Lancaster Stands Up is slated to hold an online town hall tonight at 7 p.m., arguing that “the county commissioners need to include all of us.”
In a description of the event, the group says it plans to ask: “What do we think the money should be spent on? What does the public input process look like?”
The activist group already has hosted a pair of preliminary town halls on Oct. 17, in Lancaster city’s Reservoir Park, and Ephrata’s Lloyd H. Roland Memorial Park, where they told residents about ARPA funds and the federal government’s stipulations for how to spend it, then asked for their initial feedback.
About 20 people attended the Lancaster event, and about a dozen went to the one in Ephrata. A third, planned for Hempfield Township, was rained out.
“We are here today to ask Josh Parsons, where is our money?” Eliza Booth, an organizer with Lancaster Stands Up, told attendees at the Lancaster town hall.
“To get the political establishment to listen to us, it’s going to take all of us. We’re going to have to find a way that we can bring in people — and not just people that really are hooked into politics,” Booth said. “I’m talking about people who have been disenfranchised, who have been left behind, who think their government doesn’t care … They think it’s something that happens to them, as opposed to something that we should all be a part of and participating in,” she continued.
Booth told the Capital-Star that the group’s concern about the fate of ARPA funds deepened after comments made by Lancaster County Commissioner Josh Parsons at a June hearing of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
“Unlike the CARES Act, I do not think the so-called American Rescue Plan was necessary,” Parsons testified via remote video. “This money is arriving after the COVID crisis is over.”
Lancaster County received $95 million in relief funds via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), passed by Congress in March 2020 to address economic instability amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The county commissioners office maintains a webpage that provides information on how it is spending that money, which includes contact tracing and testing services from Lancaster General Hospital, and funding programs under the Recovery Lancaster initiative. It has not created a similar page to shed light on ARPA funds.
Lancaster City, which was granted $39.5 million in ARPA funds separate from the county’s, maintains a webpage to solicit resident feedback and provide updates on distribution of its funds, including dates of meetings when citizens may provide public input to Lancaster City Council.
The legislation behind both the CARES and ARPA funds requires that county commissioners submit regular reports to the federal government about how the money is being used. Both sets of funds have stipulations on how they may be spent, with ARPA having the more stringent requirements.
So far, Lancaster County commissioners have spent only $2.4 million of its APRA funds, to pay hiring and retention bonuses to Lancaster County Prison staff, One United Lancaster reported last month — $7,500 bonuses for new hires, and retention bonuses up to $12,500 for existing workers. They have not publicly discussed other plans for its use.
At the Reservoir Park town hall, resident responses on how ARPA funds ought to be spent included a suggestion from Lancaster city resident Cathy Walker that some be used to create well-paying jobs that benefit the community, such as infrastructure repair.
The Rev. Edward Maurice Bailey of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church said he would like to see a youth leadership training program developed. The majority of responses focused on housing affordability, including solutions for those who are currently homeless.
“We feel we’ve had a housing crisis since even before COVID, COVID has only exacerbated existing issues in the city and the county,” Otis Ubriaco, a volunteer with LSU, said at Sunday’s town hall. He also cited low wages that have led to a concentration of wealth, and union-busting efforts.
“In 2016, 72% of Lancaster County renters were considered to be ‘house-burdened,’ meaning they pay at least 45% of their income on rent and transportation to work. That’s almost half your income, and then there’s bills, health care, food … it makes it very hard to save or plan for any sort of emergency,” he said.
Only about 25% of the approximately 4,500 Lancastrians who have applied for rental assistance have received a response so far, according to Ubriaco, who explained that people are often unaware their applications are on hold for minor issues with their paperwork.
“It’s really hard, and it’s not on the nonprofits themselves, that all this red tape exists, it comes from the top down — in my opinion, at least, it’s purposely made complicated,” Ubriaco said.
Lancaster County commissioners did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Correspondent Lauren Manelius covers Lancaster and central Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Readers may follow her on Twitter @El_Manels.
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