Portsmouth proposes using COVID-19 relief funds to give residents direct payments

Portsmouth

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Qualifying residents of the City of Portsmouth could soon find themselves receiving cash payments courtesy of the American Rescue Plan.

City leadership has proposed using $5 million of their more than $56.8 million share of the latest round of COVID-19 federal relief funding to offer up programs that aim either at providing direct payments to residents, providing tax relief and even giving incentives to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) passed by Congress back in March gives local governments the opportunity to spend money on a wide variety of needs to include infrastructure improvements, business assistance and economic development initiatives.

The plan still needs to be approved by City Council. So far council members are still debating over how the money should be best used.

Portsmouth is the only local government in Hampton Roads currently proposing giving direct payments to families with no strings attached.

To be eligible for monthly payments, a family of at least two must not be eligible to receive any other public assistance, according to Portsmouth City Manager Angel Jones.

If a family of two makes between roughly $28,000 and $35,000 a year, a family of three between roughly $36,000 and $43,000 a year, and a family of four or more between $44,000 and $60,000 a year, they would be eligible to receive monthly payments of $500 a month, according to Jones.

“These are your restaurant workers, your clerks,” Jones said.

One-time $500 payments for two years are being proposed for those on public assistance.

While Jones doesn’t have the specifics yet on how the families are chosen, a similar program being tested in Arlington County, known as Arlington’s Guarantee, provides cash relief of $500 to 200 low income working families in Arlington every month for 18 months.

Other programs being proposed would expand eligibility for seniors to take advantage of the senior tax relief program as well as start up a senior care credit program that rewards seniors who received the COVID-19 vaccine in $100 pharmacy gift cards.

The final idea has to do with incentivizing young people to get the COVID-19 vaccine by providing $50 gift cards.

“I am in favor of anything that helps our residents,” Mayor Shannon Glover said when asked if he supports the proposals.

Some on City Council have questioned if direct payments should be prioritized over the backlog of city maintenance.

Specifically, there is debate whether $8.5 million should go toward finishing the Portsmouth Seawall replacement project and water tower rehab.

Deputy City Manager Mimi Terri said “the rubber has met the road” in terms of the city deferring maintenance. She pointed out water and sewer rates are still expected to increase 5% year-over-year to try and catch up.

“That would be considered a direct payment back to our citizens if they didn’t have to have a 5% increase, if we could use the funds for that,” Councilwoman Lisa Lucas-Burke said in the recent meeting.

However, Vice Mayor De’Andre Barnes thinks any access funds should go toward people and youth programs.

“With all that’s happening in our city with our children right now, we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we do not invest in our children, invest in our community, invest in the people of Portsmouth,” Barnes said.

A vote on the plan is expected next month.

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