City council approves $9.5 million in federal COVID funds for 10 community-based projects

Michael McDevitt
Las Cruces Sun-News
City Councilor Yvonne Flores speaks about the ARPA bid process at a Las Cruces City Council meeting at City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022.

LAS CRUCES — The process to allocate millions in federal pandemic aid dollars hit a major milestone Tuesday, as the Las Cruces City Council voted to give 10 organizations a total of $9.59 million to carry out various community and economic assistance projects.

The council vote came nearly a year after the body initiated a competitive process to decide how to spend $10.37 million in American Rescue Plan Act money the city had set aside for nonprofits and quasi-governmental agencies. The funding is supposed to be used to respond to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on households and small businesses.

"To me, it's been shameful that we've been sitting on millions of dollars that was allocated by the federal government to specifically support those who were mostly impacted by COVID, and a year later here we are just now getting ready to distribute these funds," said District 4 Councilor Johana Bencomo.

While the council originally had intended to allocate the funds last December, allegations were raised before the vote about inconsistencies with the part of the selection process which determined if a project or organization was eligible. Some organizations who had been deemed ineligible noted contradictory and seemingly arbitrary decisions which lacked adequate explanations.

Many of those allegations were substantiated, after an internal city audit released in January found decisions about a project or organization’s eligibility were vague and largely undocumented. Documentation was in such short supply that the audit concluded the fairness of the process was indeterminable. The audit also found multiple violations of the procurement code, though City Manager Ifo Pili has denied the city needed to fully abide by procurement rules.

As a result, the city canceled and restarted the ARPA selection process with the original applicants. The city council approved a new process in May which included clearly defined eligibility parameters and an appeals process for ineligible groups and projects — though the council pushed one of two scheduled audits of the new process until after funds were approved rather than during the process.

The new selection process, which also featured an entirely new slate of members for two committees which determined eligibility and scored eligible projects, elicited 10 projects recommended for $9.59 million in funding. Six applicants appealed their eligibility determinations, though only one was successful in earning eligibility, according to Chris Faivre with the city's economic development department.

The projects included affordable housing developments, financial assistance for high-risk tenants, programs which addressed learning loss for students and a guaranteed basic income pilot program. The council approved the slate of projects 6-1. Mayor Ken Miyagishima voted no after he said he was opposed to a couple of the projects, such as GBI. The mayor had suggested voting on the 10 individually, but the rest of the council did not move that proposal forward.

Here are the projects funded:

  • Mesilla Valley Community of Hope; Housing Risk Mitigation Funds; $300,000
  • Community Foundation of Southern NM/Bitwise; Equip Las Cruces; $1,000,000
  • Community Action Agency of SNM; Guaranteed Basic Income Project; $1,700,000
  • Jardin de los Niños; Flourishing Families Infant Mental Health Program; $350,000
  • Catholic Charities of Southern New Mexico; COVID-19 Recovery Fund; $550,000
  • New Mexico Housing & Community Development Corp; Peachtree Affordable Housing Project; $2,000,000
  • Boys & Girls Club of Las Cruces; New Facility; $1,388,000
  • Cruces Creatives; Economic and Educational Recovery; $1,000,000
  • Mesilla Valley Public Housing Authority; Oak Street Veterans Affordable Housing Project; $305,853
  • Liftfund; Revitalize Las Cruces Small Businesses; $1,000,000

The council will be required to approve each individual project's contract, which will include more specifics about each program. The city is expected to hire a worker not currently on the city payroll to negotiate and finalize the contracts. Faivre said the city could post the job soon and hire someone in the next few months. The funds must be expended by the end of 2026.

Miyagishima said the city's internal auditor found no issues so far with the new process.

Bencomo thanked organizations for their patience, as a former nonprofit director herself who said she understood the amount of work that goes into each proposal and added, "I'm really glad we're here. I'm excited to support incredible organizations doing incredible work for the most excluded in our community."

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Michael McDevitt is a city and county government reporter for the Sun-News. He can be reached at 575-202-3205, mmcdevitt@lcsun-news.com or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter.