As covid relief money floods in, pandemic-battered cities see a chance to transform

Posted on April 19, 2021

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It wasn’t long ago that the future looked bleak for Birmingham.

The pandemic had blown a $63 million hole in the Alabama city’s finances, and the costs were piling up: furloughed workers, slashed salaries, cuts to programs as varied as the arts and the zoo. On the day last fall that the city council passed its red-ink-streaked budget, angry librarians protested outside.

But the atmosphere abruptly changed this month when the city’s Democratic congresswoman came to town bearing an outsized $148 million check. The symbolic bank note, bearing President Biden’s signature, reflects the city’s allotment of federal coronavirus relief funds. It also represents, said Mayor Randall Woodfin (D), an opportunity to fix Birmingham’s biggest problems.

“It’s a fundamental game-changer for our city,” Woodfin said.

Across America, cities that were cash-strapped and beleaguered only months ago now find themselves flush with money and ready to spend. Although city leaders say their first job will be to heal the damage, many believe they will be able to go beyond that and address some of the root inequities that the coronavirus pandemic laid bare.

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Cities are right to take their time to figure out how to spend such large sums, said Robert Simpson, chief executive of the CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity, the chamber of commerce in Syracuse, N.Y.

“An opportunity like this doesn’t come around all that often,” he said. “Communities would be remiss not to think strategically.”

That thinking, he said, should include not only physical infrastructure such as extending broadband networks, but also investments in skills training and education to address long-standing disparities in economic opportunity. In Syracuse, unemployment spiked as high as 16 percent last year, and many workers have to adapt to a changed jobs market.

“If we’re not investing in 21st-century infrastructure, then we put ourselves at risk in the next pandemic,” Simpson said.

Some jurisdictions have proposed plans to do just that. Constantine, King County’s executive, has assembled a $600 million covid recovery plan that uses federal, state and local funds in an attempt to — as the Biden administration has put it — “build back better.” 

Read the full article from The Washington Post, here.

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