A group of residents throughout Johnson County are arguing they are owed $1,400 checks that were not awarded to them via a lottery system in the Direct Payment Assistance program. The program, funded mainly by Johnson County and Iowa City, gave checks to 1,919 low-income residents affected by COVID-19 through impacts such as housing or […]
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A group of residents throughout Johnson County are arguing they are owed $1,400 checks that were not awarded to them via a lottery system in the Direct Payment Assistance program.
The program, funded mainly by Johnson County and Iowa City, gave checks to 1,919 low-income residents affected by COVID-19 through impacts such as housing or food insecurity. The goal of the program was to help Johnson County residents excluded from other COVID-19 payments using $3.5 million in funds.
But despite having enough money to help all affected residents, 319 people who lost the lottery never received assistance.
Escucha Mi Voz (Hear my Voice), a group advocating on behalf of the affected individuals, has met with Iowa City Council members and the Johnson Board of Supervisors, in addition to leading protests demanding the excluded workers receive the payment.
Maria Flores is an immigrant worker living in North Liberty and is growing increasingly frustrated at the pace of progress on the issue.
“We’re losing time and money to come to all of these meetings,” she told the CBJ through a translator at an Iowa City Council work session Aug. 2. “The pandemic happened a long time ago. The money was for excluded workers. Why do we have to be excluded again?”
Many of the workers who lost the lottery — like Maria Figueroa, a speaker who addressed the city council during the formal meeting’s public comment session — live in one of the mobile home parks just outside city limits. In her case, she lives in Breckenridge Estates and has an Iowa City address, but technically lives outside city limits due to the location of the manufacturing housing park. She told the council that the $1,400 is crucial to her and her family, as she hopes to use the money to make improvements on her home.
Data from an Iowa City staff memo shows funds are available to help all affected residents, but the April 19 subrecipient agreement for the program was written in a way that prioritized Johnson County dollars.
Johnson County paid for 67% of Iowa City residents and did not have money left over to send checks to 319 residents from places like Coralville and North Liberty. Approximately two-thirds of all people who received checks were Iowa City residents, but Iowa City only paid about 25% of the program’s costs.
“The city leveraged as much county money as possible while spending as few of their own committed dollars as possible, and that’s how we ended up in this situation,” said Emily Sinnwell, co-founder of Iowa City Catholic Worker House.
She believes the simplest solution is for Iowa City to reimburse the county for the 319 Iowa City residents so Johnson County would have funds to reallocate toward the final group of excluded workers, yet the city council collectively agreed they should not be on the hook for all of the remaining residents.
At the Aug. 2 work session, city council members discussed various options to send checks to some of the remaining workers. Iowa City Mayor Bruce Teague voiced approval for a more measured “backfill” approach that calls for Iowa City to pitch in funds for around half of the remaining 319 residents (freeing up Johnson County funds for the remaining excluded residents), but have it credited to Iowa City residents because “ARPA funds cannot be used by anyone that is not within our jurisdiction.” This would save more of Iowa City’s leftover funds for future use but would still require the Johnson County Board of Supervisors’ assistance in helping the other 160 people, leaving that group at risk of never receiving help.
Frustration boiled over during a weekend sitdown July 30 between council members Megan Alter and John Thomas and mobile home park residents living in unincorporated Johnson County, Coralville and North Liberty. Mr. Thomas raised the possibility of funding 100 mobile home park residents and Ms. Flores, present at the meeting, said that plan doesn’t do enough to help everyone.
“After the pandemic, all the debt we acquired we’re still catching up on,” she said. “We have kids that are U.S. citizens and we need to pay off the debt for them.”
Mr. Teague says the city council and the county lived up to the subrecipient agreement to a T and that there is plenty to be proud of when it comes to the Direct Payment Assistance program.
“That’s the message I don’t hear ringing through the community,” he said during the work session. “We’re the only one in the entire state that has done this program. I would ask for grace and patience from the community members.”
“It seems silly to ask the county for money when you have the money in your hands to use,” said Ninoska Campos, a Guatemalan immigrant who is one of the leading voices in the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition, during public comment Aug. 2.
The Johnson County Board of Supervisors disagreed with each other during a work session Aug. 10 on how to best handle Iowa City’s request to split 50% of the cost of funding the remaining 319 eligible applicants, at a cost of $224,000. Johnson County agreed the equitable solution is to make Iowa City pay the final 319 workers, but several supervisors believed the most realistic solution is to move funds from other projects if needed and split the cost so it can be guaranteed workers will receive checks.
“If half a loaf is the best that we’re going to get, I say we take it,” Supervisor Jon Green said.
A final proposal will reach the Iowa City Council during a Aug. 16 city council meeting.