Different Worlds: Porter County and Valparaiso Distribute ARPA Funds

Anyone who watched the spectacles surrounding the determination of how to spend the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money in both Porter County and the City of Valparaiso was treated to an education on the different workings of two governments tackling the same problem.  Without making a judgment as to the exact degree of exclusiveness or inclusiveness of the processes used by the aforementioned governments, one could at least array the two government’s approaches on a scale from most inclusive to least inclusive.  Certainly both systems started out at the same place, but because of a variety of circumstances, the County made some abrupt adjustments and moved to a much more systematic, transparent,  and inclusive process.  While the City of Valparaiso was encouraged to adopt a more inclusive approach, they did not move that far up the inclusiveness scale relative to the County.

The City of Valparaiso first adopted a strategy where the Mayor and his leadership team would develop a plan and then go to each member of the City Council and discuss the plan. The plan would then be voted on and passed.  The public was free to contact any member of the team or council and suggest ideas. The City adjusted that plan somewhat due, we suspect, to some pressure and what was happening at the Porter County level.  As a result, Valpo added a computer portal where individuals could send in suggestions for the use of the money. The time the portal was open was extended, and then for some reason, extended another day which allowed several additional suggestions to be included, most related to repairing golf cart paths at Forest Park golf course.  Non profits and other organizations were also allowed the opportunity to submit proposals.

The City’s overall conclusion was that they had a very significant amount of public input.  They received 134 responses (the exact number depends on whose data you look at) from the portal, another 2000+ from the park’s planning process, and 85 from the Elevate Valpo study.  There are, however, some problems with this data.  The 85 stakeholders from the Elevate Valpo study were a relatively select group who had a vested interest in issues related to the downtown and not on how ARPA money was to be spent. Plus, this data was gathered months prior to the time when the ARPA funds were being considered.  The 2000 responses from the park study focused on park issues and, not surprisingly, that data could be used to support the overarching conclusion that most money would be spent on parks, particularly the new parks initiative. As to the portal data – which had several other issues – independent analysis of this data  drew somewhat different conclusions questioning the inference that the public wanted to use the ARPA money to finance the parks.  In addition, one City Council person’s plea for a more open forum on the issue was ignored as were requests by several citizens.  Coincidentally, the same City Council person’s discussion time with the Mayor was dropped because of a scheduling issue.

What was obvious to even the casual observer was that the City had decided in advance to somehow fund their new parks initiative with the ARPA funds and then generate enough data and interpret it in such a way  that would justify spending most of the money on parks. This process was helped considerably by the City attorney’s interpretation of how much revenue a city had to demonstrate that it had lost as a result of the pandemic in order to request an amount equal to that.  The key  was what the city attorney referred to as a “standard deduction” wherein it was assumed (by the Treasury Department’s Final Rule) that an entity getting $10 million or less lost at least that much money and therefore did not have to document those losses.  There is no evidence that the City lost anything and even the director of the parks was very careful to note that while the parks lost out in some areas, there was enough increased revenue in other areas to offset much of that loss.  Of course how much revenue was actually lost was all irrelevant because of the standard deduction where no justification was needed given the amount granted to the City.

Contrast this more limited role for public input with the Porter County’s response. The County began in a somewhat secretive way, but when people heard about $5 million going to the Memorial Opera House and the charge that “illegal” public meetings may have been held, they quickly changed the process.  The result was a systematic plan that in their words, would “engage the public and assure transparency.”  The first step was to outline very clearly what the process would be and communicate this to the public on their very detailed web page. The best way to demonstrate the length the County went to ensure transparency, inclusiveness, and accountability is to simply look at their web pages on the process. They can be viewed at: American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Planning Process | Porter County, IN – Official Website and Transparency & Accountability | Porter County, IN – Official Website. The following is a brief summary of the process and information as it appears on their websites.  It demonstrates the lengths the County went to ensure transparency and inclusion.

a. A detailed description of the process.

b. An open computer portal where both plans and comments could be submitted was created.

c. A procedure to sign up for email or text announcements and updates on the process.

d. Copies of the submitted proposals and comments.

e. All meetings will be held during evening hours and/or on weekends and are open to the public. Schedules of meetings were clearly posted.

f. All meetings were open and videos were posted within two business days after the meeting on the Porter County Government ARPA Planning Meetings YouTube Channel.

g. Four Sub-Committees, comprised of one Commissioner, two Council members and two citizens as voting members held meetings to review ideas and comments from the public and funding proposals from agencies and organizations.

h. Persons or organizations made presentations to these various committees at public meetings with the opportunity for comment and discussion. Their proposals were made available as were videos of the presentation.

i. Based on input from the public the Sub-Committees will make recommendations to a Steering Committee comprised of one Commissioner and two County Council members who will then make recommendations to the full Board of Commissioners and County Council.

j. A regularly updated summary of ARPA expenditures is available on the web site.

What is readily apparent is that the County went to great lengths to increase public input and transparency particularly when compared to the City’s process.  The question is, does a more inclusive process really make any difference? The final conclusion on this will have to wait until the County completes their entire process, but there are inevitable outcomes that result from limiting public input.

First, it is clear that as you limit public input into the policy process you are becoming less democratic – that’s democratic with a small d.  After all, a central tenet of democracy is that the people shall rule and the extent to which they don’t rule – or are given less input or input is made more difficult – the less democratic the system becomes. The City has obviously followed a less democratic path while the County has followed a more democratic process.

Secondly, public input is not only important to satisfy an abstract notion of democracy, but limiting input distorts what the actual needs and concerns of the public are.  For example, looking at the results of the city’s portal data, almost 10% (depending on whose data you use) of the responses suggested that repairing the golf cart paths are a need that should be fulfilled by using ARPA funds. It is doubtful that this reflects a critical need to most of the public, especially considering that most of them don’t even golf.

Third, policy makers benefit considerably by having a variety of options from which to choose. By including more of the public you will get a greater number of options which will increase the likelihood of making the “correct” decision, which in this case, would be the decision that best assists those most impacted by the pandemic.

Fourth, often ignored when we think about the benefits of public input is the value to the individual of participating in the policy process which gives them some sense of control over what happens in their life and the life of the community.  Theorists for ages have trumpeted the mental health benefits of freedom, liberty, and public participation which give people control over their lives.  The extent to which public participation is limited  leads to discouragement, despair, frustration, and anger which is so prevalent in the country today and became obvious locally by the comments of citizens at City Council meetings during this process.

Finally, as one irate citizen said at a recent City Council meeting while criticizing the ARPA funding process, “there is the issue of optics.” Her point was clear to anyone who has observed City Council meetings over the past few years that the City leadership has a problem with transparency and inclusiveness and the ARPA process was just another example of this.  From denying access to a member of the City Council the early versions of the “Housing Study,” to continuing to make the comment section at the end of Council meetings more restrictive, the City leadership has continued to limit public input and transparency and the ARPA process was just another example of this.

The ARPA spectacles demonstrate how two governments confronted with the same problem – how are they going to spend millions of dollars that were dumped in their laps — can handle it so differently. The question of why such dramatically different processes were adopted in this case, as well as others, is the result of many factors, but certainly one of them has to be the attitudes and values of those defining the process.

Larry Baas