MANSFIELD -- Mansfield City Council pulled back on the reins a bit Wednesday night, albeit perhaps temporarily, on the administration's latest American Rescue Plan Act spending plan.
Mayor Tim Theaker had proposed about $3.3 million in new ARPA spending, half of which was approved by local legislators.
But council voted unanimously to remove $1.2 million in employee bonuses and $500,000 the administration wanted to set aside to help fund a long-desired connection between the B&O Bike Trail and Trimble Road.
Congress approved the ARPA money in 2021, a plan aimed at providing assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. All ARPA funds must be appropriated by the end of 2024 and projects completed by the end of 2026.
Local lawmakers, led by At-large Councilwoman Stephanie Zader and 4th Ward Councilman Alomar Davenport, questioned why the administration wanted bonus money for unions with which it's currently negotiating.
Theaker had proposed $600,000 in retention bonuses for the fire department and $600,000 for members of AFSCME Local 3088 and also their supervisors, who are not bargaining members of the union.
The city is currently in new contract negotiations with International Association of Fire Fighters Local 266, according to the mayor.
The city also has contract issues with the local AFSCME union. The city reached a new, three-year contract in September 2021 with the union, retroactive to May 1.
The deal includes a 3-percent increase in the first year with increases of 2.75 percent in each of the second and third years.
However, in March, after learning of the police union contract that provided 7.75 percent increases and retention bonuses, local union president Lance Cook announced AFSCME would exercise the "me too" clause in its contract, seeking comparable increases.
Theaker and Public Works Director Dave Remy said the dollar amounts were determined as the maximum allowable under the ARPA guidelines.
Both Zader and Davenport said it seemed premature to set aside the funds while negotiations are ongoing.
"I don't like the fact that we're trying to allocate money when we don't know what we're allocating to," Zader said.
"Just because you have money in your account doesn't mean you have to spend it. We have until the end of next year to allocate (ARPA funds). The $1.2 million is sitting there whether we allocate it (tonight) or not.
"Allocating it now does a disservice to the negotiations, in my opinion," Zader said. "In negotiations, it doesn't make sense to allocate money when we are telling them we don't have the money to allocate."
Davenport said he wanted to stay "very general" in his comments due to the ongoing negotations being led by Remy and Human Resources Director Sharon May.
"We know we are still in negotiations with (IAFF and AFSCME) and we are unaware of how much money we are going to need for those. Why are we including it now when we don't know what it's going to be?" Davenport said.
Remy asked that council keep the money in the plan.
"We are an active negotiation with every union we have. We're unfortunately put in that position. The numbers that are been given to you in this document are based upon a formula set forth in the APA funding system. They are numbers that go in accordance with that formula, whether it be retention bonuses or whether it be premium pay.
"If you don't allocate that to us, we lose an upper hand or we lose a bargaining chip and an assurance that we've got that money set aside.
"There is an attempt to try to tie the ARPA funding to negotiation directly. That is an open-ended question as to whether or not an arbitrator or a fact finder can actually dictate how we spend our funds," Remy said.
Once it became clear the $1.2 million in bonuses were going to be removed from the spending package, Remy cautioned council members about speaking to union employees while negotiations are ongoing.
"I ask (council members) to refrain from discussing issues related to the CBAs with anyone, any employee, or anyone in any of the four unions, their union reps, the union coordinators, or the union officers," Remy said.
"The HR director and I have enough to do in dealing with negotiations. I do now want to create any type of basis for any unfair labor practice action against the city for inappropriate discussions about negotiated items.
"Just as a reminder, the city has an administrative arm to deal with negotiations. We're doing that actively on a daily basis. Councilmen are not part of that equation. It should not be part of that equation," Remy said.
At-large Councilman Phil Scott was the first to question the usage of ARPA funds for the bike trail connection.
"I think we've been talking about it for quite a while. I don't know how far along the planning are, but we've also got existing projects with the (city) parks and other things that need money for improvement.
"We talk about a pool, obviously $500,000 is gonna be a drop in the bucket for a pool, but I'm wondering if we couldn't use those resources for something other than a bike path," Scott said.
Zader quickly agreed with Scott.
"I'm not gonna feed other people's children before I feed my own. So taking care of current needs and your current household first, I think is important.
"Looking at this list of things, we have a lot of needs in the city. I think it should be about the best use of that money, not just whatever we have going on at the time. What is the best possible use of that funding going to be? And the question is ... is that extending the bike path?" Zader asked.
Davenport, the finance committee chairman, asked that all three items be removed from the ARPA spending plan being voted on Wednesday night. His fellow council members unanimously agreed.
ARPA spending council did approve Wednesday was:
-- $200,000 toward the design of the next phase in the West End Neighborhood Improvement Plan.
-- $200,000 toward the new county-wide branding effort.
-- $500,000 in previously announced funding for the demolition and remediation of former Westinghouse properties in Mansfield.
-- $40,000 to help preserve a historical former archway at the Westinghouse "A" building.
-- $100,000 to Downtown Mansfield Inc. and Destination Mansfield-Richland County.
-- $20,000 to a career fair in the city's north end.
-- $50,000 to help clean up after a powerful thunderstorm roared through the city in June, knocking down numerous trees and limbs.
-- $100,000 to Catholic Charities.
-- $22,981 for additional equipment needed as part of the MPD radio replacement effort.
-- $400,000 toward new equipment in the city's 9-1-1 communications/dispatch center.