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City leaders to spend $122 million in Covid funds mostly on one-time needs

Tim Farley, For The City Sentinel

Infrastructure, tourism and small businesses will likely be Oklahoma City’s focus when council members determine how they intend to spend $122 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Assistant City Manager Kenton Tsoodle told the city council Tuesday the money should be spent on a “broad number of categories,” but details are being worked out as the U.S. Treasury Department irons out rules for expenditures.

The American Rescue Plan Act money must be obligated no later than October 2024 and must be spent by October 2026. A specific plan with projects and their costs will be delivered to the council at a later time.

The city’s plan, Tsoodle said, will place the emphasis on one-time expenditures that can be used for various infrastructure needs within affordable housing projects and information technology updates.

In addition, the funds can be used to assist small and disadvantaged businesses hurt by the pandemic, help non-profit partners, business incubators, job training, tourism recovery and response to public health emergencies.

“Because of the temporary nature of the money, infrastructure would be a great place to spend it,” he said.

Tsoodle emphasized the federal money should not be spent on items that are recurring. Federal rules prohibit the funds from being spent on long or short-term debt or placing it in a city’s general fund.

The federal government distributed $145 billion nationwide to governmental entities with Oklahoma City receiving $122 million. The city received half in May and should receive the second half allocation soon, Tsoodle said. However, he and Mayor David Holt emphasized that 57 other cities received more money than Oklahoma City, which is the 22nd largest city in the U.S.

Tourism has been a focus for Oklahoma City’s revenue with a new convention center and hotel, Bricktown, the Oklahoma City Thunder and several other annual large-scale events that attract people from throughout the nation. However, Tsoodle said tourism dropped off dramatically with the COVID pandemic. The federal funds could be used to begin new tourism campaigns, he said.

An estimated 7.5 million out of town visitors spend money in Oklahoma City annually, which provides an economic impact of $2.3 billion, according to figures provided by the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau. Statewide, tourism destinations employ 31,500 people in the hospitality and tourism industry. In Oklahoma City, 22,230 people are employed in the tourism industry.

Ward 5 Councilman David Greenwell, the only council member to oppose Tuesday’s resolution authorizing the COVID-19 funds plan, said he favors infrastructure projects. He also said terms such as “revenue replacements” should not be used when discussing the federal funds plan since Oklahoma City does not have a budget shortfall.