Binghamton activists have created a website that claims to track the use of Binghamton’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
ARPA — passed by Congress in March 2021 — is a relief bill created to provide economic support to governments, businesses, public health institutions and individuals in an attempt to offset the impact of COVID-19. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the City of Binghamton received $46 million in ARPA funds.
Recently, a group of Binghamton activists submitted a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request for a summary of Binghamton’s ARPA spending. The group then created the “Binghamton Slush Fund” website in late December, in order to share the information they received with the community.
Budget information was given to the website owners by Chuck Shager, the Binghamton City comptroller, in response to the FOIL request.
Tarik Abdelazim, who served as Binghamton’s director of planning, housing and community development from 2010 to 2013, was one of the creators of the website. Abdelrazim said the group chose to investigate and publicize the city’s ARPA spending because Binghamton opted not to hold community forums over the funds’ usage.
“If you’re going to design a program around recovery, you should center the voices and needs of those who were most impacted by the pandemic,” Abdelazim said. “They have never done that. That’s why these spending decisions are so out of line with the needs in this community.”
The website’s organizers took particular issue with ARPA’s “lost revenue” category, and the alleged use of Binghamton’s COVID-19 recovery funds for routine maintenance. The FOIL request appears to reveal that, under former Binghamton Mayor Rich David, $12,494,152 was allocated to lost revenue, while current Binghamton Mayor Jared Kraham had allocated $964,943 — as of February 2023.
Under ARPA regulations, “lost revenue” refers to revenue a locality had lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, with each city allowed to allocate $10 million of ARPA funding as such without using the U.S. Treasury’s loss formula. The Town of Union, which neighbors Binghamton, had opted for the $10 million standard allowance, despite initially estimating only $1.5 million in revenue losses.
In 2022, pressconnects reported that Binghamton was allocating $12 million for lost revenue. About $3.4 million remained in Binghamton’s “lost revenue” category as of January 2023, according to the Binghamton Slush Fund website.
The Binghamton Slush Fund detailed the use of ARPA funds classified under “lost revenue” and — according to the information from the City Comptroller — $7 million was allegedly committed to help rebuild the Boscov’s parking garage, which includes privately-owned luxury housing, and $530,000 was allegedly used to purchase new undercover police vehicles.
Also at issue for the website’s organizers were Kraham’s announcements that some ARPA funds would be used to pay for routine maintenance such as upgrading the city’s water and sewer infrastructure, staffing costs at the new Southern Tier Crime Analysis Center, a retention incentive for police officers and the demolition of vacant buildings.
Abdelazim emphasized the importance of Binghamton’s housing crisis, which he feels the ARPA funds could be used toward.
“For housing advocates, there was a strong interest in committing half of all the funds to invest in our significant housing crisis,” Abdelazim said. “From homeowners — foreclosure prevention — to tenants — tenants support, production of new affordable housing [and] improving health and safety of existing substandard rentals.”
In his 2023 Budget Message Kraham said the ARPA funding the city had received was a “down payment to American cities like Binghamton after decades of disinvestment by the federal government.” In particular, Kraham said some funding would be allocated to infrastructure, public safety, housing and code enforcement, community development and a youth fund. Most of these plans are present on the Binghamton Slush Fund’s website.
Kraham also confirmed that $500,000 in ARPA funding classified as lost revenue will be made available to local businesses as part of a “Commercial Facade Improvement Program.” According to a press release by the mayor’s office, the program’s goal is to provide updated storefronts to small businesses that have “demonstrated incredible resiliency” throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The mayor’s office declined to comment on the Binghamton Slush Fund website.
Chance Fiorisi, the Student Association executive vice president-elect and a sophomore majoring in political science, said he feels ARPA funds should be spent with more transparency.
“The fact that the mayor’s office refuses to comment on the matter, tells me all I need to know,” Fiorisi wrote in an email. “Hiding the truth is something this administration knows all too well about. The ARPA was passed to help the people of communities that are and have been facing serious issues relating to the pandemic and its impacts on our society, not just what the mayor’s office wants. This is not a fund to just tap into.”
Lauren Hollander, a senior majoring in psychology, said more funding should be dedicated toward community initiatives.
“I think it’s crazy that Binghamton got so much money but didn’t consult with the residents,” Hollander said. “We need all the help we can with [COVID-19] research. This money needs to be put toward what it was intended to. If not, they are doing this community and themselves a huge disservice.”