Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui announces a direct cash-assistance program Wednesday during her State of the City address. (Photo: Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui via Instagram)

A final hunk of Covid aid funds arrived before the City Council on Monday – $23.1 million described by staff as aimed at concerns ranging from homelessness to broadband infrastructure – but a vote to release it was delayed by at least a week.

The money is part of $88.1 million coming from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, though delivered by the state as part of the act’s Coronavirus Local Fiscal Recovery Fund. The most high-profile use of the federal funds was announced Wednesday by Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui at her State of the City address with City Manager Louis A. DePasquale: $22 million in direct cash assistance to every single Cambridge family with income under the federal poverty level.

There would be $500 a month delivered for approximately a year and a half, an expansion of a test run with 130 families starting in September. The council proposed the expansion in February; details of the program are still being fleshed out. “We are confident that this appropriation will be a huge force in our recovery from the pandemic and in our efforts to address the inequities that exist in Cambridge,” Siddiqui said Wednesday. 

“While there are now cities around the country that are piloting direct cash assistance programs, this will be the first such program that is able to provide the assistance to every family that is eligible,” Siddiqui said.

A 2021 Cambridge Community Foundation report showed that one out of eight residents in Cambridge is food insecure, and the average household income for the city’s bottom 20 percent of earners – about 24,000 people – is just $13,000 a year, Siddiqui said.

Porchia and Rose, participants in a guaranteed income program, were guests at the State of the City addresses April 27 in City Hall. (Photo: Vice mayor Alanna Mallon)

Siddiqui was joined during the address in City Hall by a family that became part of the test program, called Cambridge Rise, and exemplified its ability to improve residents’ lives: A woman identified as Porchia and her daughter, Rose. With the Rise money, Porchia has been taking classes to become a medical assistant. “Rise has helped her cover expenses for class, transportation, child care and more. Just recently, she passed the final exam to receive her medical assistant certification and will be finishing the program in June,” Siddiqui said.

Familiar clash

With such capacity to power city programs, the Arpa funds sparked a councillor-city staff clash over who decides disbursements. On Monday, councillor Quinton Zondervan renewed those questions with the request to accept the latest $23.1 million.

“The last time we received Arpa funds, we went through this discussion and were told that we couldn’t vote on individual expenditures – that we have to vote $55 million all at once. I’m assuming we’re back to the same situation and being asked to vote on $23 million all at once,” Zondervan said. “I would like to understand how we can get more specificity around how the money is going to be spent.”

The response from DePasquale and assistant city manager for finance David Kale was familiar from June. “Grant appropriations is not on a project-by-project basis. We had that conversation,” Kale said – but city staff have met with councillors in their Finance Committee and are focused on council priorities. “One of the priorities that the council expressed was the cash assistance component, which we have just done,” Kale said. 

The $23.1 million hasn’t been earmarked for anything specific and would not be without consulting councillors and the finance chairs, DePasquale said.

Monday’s council meeting was unusually short – a bit longer than two hours – and short on speeches. When Zondervan said he wanted to hear how fellow councillors felt about city staff’s oversight of the $88.1 million, only Dennis Carlone spoke, and only to say he’d discussed a next Finance Committee meeting with Kale “so once again we can talk about priorities and emphasizing what’s important to us.” Vice mayor Alanna Mallon, who ran the meeting while Siddiqui was celebrating Eid at the White House, agreed that it had always been her understanding that the funds would be accepted as a lump sum.

Pause on public requests

Zondervan remained unready to vote and exercised his “charter right” to bump discussion by one regular meeting.

At around the same time, the period of soliciting community input for the $88.1 million ended. The city had allocated $33 million in projects reviewed with the City Council and announced the allocation of the $22 million for cash assistance, Kale said. That left $33.1 million to go while continuing to receive public requests – more than 42 ideas as of that morning, not counting a new suggestion from the Cambridge Nonprofit Coalition and existing council priorities such as transit, girding the city against the effects of global warming and help for the unhoused. “We’re working to see what things are Arpa-eligible,” Kale said.

Hence the “strategic pause on public requests” that by now total more than $139 million. “Obviously, we’re not going to be able to fund all of that,” Kale said.