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City Manager Alex Nguyen (Photo courtesy City of Oxnard)
Thursday, July 15, 2021

By Chris Frost

Tri County Sentry

Oxnard-- The Finance and Governance Committee, Tuesday, July 13, began its discussion about the funding from the American Rescue Plan.


The debate brought a myriad of ideas, and each committee will discuss the funding. The full council will discuss the money as a group at the end of July.


City Manager Alex Nguyen said he believes the process and discussions will be positive, and there will be challenges about what to invest in versus all the other needs the city has across the community. 


"It's important to keep in mind that this particular bucket of federal funding is intended to help local governments," he said. "As we have discussed in prior council meetings, there have literally been boatloads of funding made available from the federal government as well as the state government. Much of that is directed through the county government for different sectors of society and different sectors of the economy."


Nguyen said at this time, there are five federal infrastructure bills being negotiated in Washington D.C., and he hopes and expects something to come from those bills. He also expects there to be new federal stimulus money specifically for infrastructure.


"We know they are debating surface street infrastructure as well as water and sewer infrastructure," he said, "Related to surface and street infrastructure is also bridges and tunnels."


Nguyen said the State of California also has buckets of money for families and small businesses, as there is $8.1 billion coming from the state in the form of stimulus checks to individuals with families and kids and $5.2 billion to help low-income renters pay 100 percent of their back rent.


"There's $1 billion for new grants slated for workers who have lost their jobs during the pandemic," he said. "There should be $12 billion set aside specifically to tackle homelessness. We are still in the midst of a homeless crisis throughout California. I am hopeful that those funds will be made available directly to cities versus via long and tedious grant processes. Given that the homeless crisis occurs on city streets and parks."


The state is setting aside $18 billion for infrastructure, he said, including broadband infrastructure and modernizing the transportation system. Additional money coming from the state includes $2 billion for emergency preparedness investments, $3.2 billion for accelerating zero-emission vehicle goals, $1.3 billion to prepare for extreme heat, sea-level rise, and environmental justice priorities, and $5.1 billion for drought response and water resilience.


"As we make choices about how to invest our ARP funding, which is approximately $59 million this year and next year, keep in mind there are many other sources of funding for many of the needs we have," he said. 


He reiterated that the funding is a one-time unique opportunity.


"It should be applied to one-time expenditures," he said. "One-time funding should be used for one-time expenditures."


Nguyen asked the council if they'd like to spend the money on one or two large investments or should they distribute the money on the city's many needs.


"I recommend that we do the latter because we have so many needs across this community," he said. "As we are making the choices, we should look towards making investments that not only aids in the local government's recovery from the pandemic, but also has the ability to provide improvements and growth in the future." 


The bill supports public health response, replaces public sector revenue losses, invests in sewer and water infrastructure, addresses the negative economic impacts from the pandemic, provides premium pay for essential workers, which the council acted upon, and invests in broadband infrastructure.


Nguyen said so far, the U.S. Treasury has sent the preliminary final rules, and the city staff has studied the rules and did its best to make recommendations to the council. The U.S. Treasury is expected to issue its final rule in August.


"They have spelled out a few uses that are ineligible, and those include using ARP funds for debt service, legal settlements or judgments, deposits to pension funds, or sock it away into a reserve," he said. 


Included in the list of city recommendations for the first tranche of money are premium pay for City employees working on the front-line during the pandemic, refreshing school crosswalks, and Safe Routes planning, "Comeback Year" grants for Oxnard festivals, community assessment to determine transitions to adulthood among Oxnard youth post-Covid-19, a community assessment report on Oxnard's business attractions assets and gap analysis, a Permanent Outdoor Patio Program Fund to provide grants for restaurants to create permanent attractive and safe outdoor dining spaces, acquisition of land and permitting of a Homeless Solutions Center in South Oxnard, temporary staffing (over two years) to support the administration of mainstream and Emergency Housing Vouchers for the homeless, relocate COVID-19 shelter from PAL to the Armory and costs to repair and clean PAL, and much more.


"We also tried to fit them in wherever we could if they meet council priorities or if whether or not there are alternative funding sources, whether recent or the near future," he said. "Whether they meet specific unique needs in our community and our population, whether the project can be implemented within the timeframe of ARP funding, and essentially, we've got several years where we can discuss that in more detail."


Nguyen said the council should consider the city's return on investment.


"What will we get out of it," he said. "What is the longevity in terms of the impact the investments might have. We're trying to keep to the notion it should be for one-time expenditures. We have a total of almost $89 million of proposed investments. These are all preliminary, and everything is up for discussion by the public and the council. In addition, in the appendix, there is a list of potential items that didn't get onto the list of recommended investments. That list (the leftover list) totals $169 million."


Nguyen said once the city council hears public input and can contemplate the list at the committee and council level, it's the city council's prerogative to make additions, subtractions, or changes to the recommendations. 


"We did our best to balance it out; however, the council plays a different role from staff, and there may be a different balance of needs and desires for this community," he said. "Everything is open for discussion, debate, and deliberation, and we hope for all of that." 


During public comments, Ray Blattel wanted to know how suggestion number 55, architectural designs for stations 2,3 and 5, pertains to replacing public sector revenue losses.


"Just because the fire station doesn't have the latest architectural design doesn't mean they have revenue losses," he said. "It sounds absurd. On the other hand, considering all the elements in number 13, the Saviers Road effort, $140,000, seems way too little."


Douglas Partello said in his previous comment, he said there was 56.5 added staff in general for the city manager, not the public works department, and he wanted to be clear on that fact.


"I didn't know that 13 people were being added to public works," he said. "As far as the use of this money, to give it to staff is wrong. It's absolutely wrong. This money is from the Federal government to make up for the loss of revenue. The deferments of the infrastructure and all the other areas that you've included, all those other things, not giveaways to city staff, and maybe Alex is feathering his bed by offering this to the staff. They're not the ones who suffered the most from the pandemic. We have folks out here that this local government is supposed to be working for who have suffered under the pandemic. There are far greater consequences to their families, their economies, and this added tax on top of it is ridiculous." 


Deputy City Manager Shiri Klima said the money is all positive.


"This funding is over $59 million that we are receiving from the federal government," she said. "Everything at this point is a bonus. The council and community members may have different ideas about the best use of these funds; we have to keep reminding ourselves that this is all positive."


She reiterated Nguyen's statement that the money is intended to help the local government recover from the pandemic.


"There's a whole host of other funds, and you heard the city manager list those off that are available or will become available to help other sectors of society and the economy," Klima said. "We have to remember this is one-time funding, so we need to use it on one-time expenditures, not ongoing expenditures."


Councilwoman Gabriela Basua said the council has more wishes than it can fund.


"What I would like to see is everything that we know, 100 percent, that can be funded by another source and taken out of this list," she said. "I'm looking for a condensed list that says these are the projects that have no money tied to them."


She wants to focus on replacing public sector revenue loss the equity focus services, and address the negative economic impacts.


"I think that is the most important thing to do," she said. "Water and sewer infrastructure is also important to me, but there is money that comes from the enterprise funds, and we already have the money to do some of those projects."


Councilman Gabe Teran said he is looking at cultural and community services and economic development.


"For cultural and community services, things that have to do with enhancing or taking care of cuts and deferments for our recreation department," he said. "Our libraries, our youth programming and infrastructure within community services, such as the parks, Police Activities League, and also bicycle safety."


With economic development, Teran mentioned the business corridor along Saviers/Hueneme roads. 


"I think our downtown businesses and other businesses in other parts of the city; whatever we have available to be able to invest in them," he said. "Pre pandemic, we were planning to do work along the Saviers Road corridor anyway. This is a great way to springboard that effort."


Mayor John Zaragoza wants to look at the public health response, and he favors support for the homeless solutions center. 


"Continue helping those folks who need help," he said. "It's my understanding that we'll end up with some Homekey funding that will happen in the future. The other one is item 9, homeless housing. This is for emergency housing vouchers. I know there's a lot of people that lose their homes, so that, I think, is important."


Zaragoza thinks cleaning up the PAL location on K Street is important after the homeless are relocated is important, as well as the Oxnard Employee Pipeline.  


Klima said the utilities do not fund stormwater projects.


"Water and sewer infrastructure are important to me," Zaragoza said.