Questions abound regarding ARPA

One of greatest tests faced so far by Mayor Kahlil Seren and the current Cleveland Heights City Council is the management of a $38.8 million federal grant under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). ARPA is meant to help communities recover from setbacks resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Council must approve how ARPA funds are allocated.

When a local government lacks in-house skills or sufficient staff for a particular project, hiring an outside consultant can make sense. There is, however, something predatory about this burgeoning industry, much of it owned by private equity, to which local, state and national public entities can outsource virtually any government function.

ARPA, with its arcane rules and requirements, provided new openings for consultants. Cities running on lean budgets can't afford to blow this singular opportunity. Accordingly, in 2022 Mayor Seren introduced and council approved a $250,000 contract with the international firm Guidehouse (formerly Price Waterhouse Coopers). Justifying this large expenditure, the city cited the fact that Dayton had also retained the firm. Dayton is the Montgomery County seat, and has a population of 134,404—just two factors putting it in an entirely different league than our city. 

After Cleveland Heights signed on with Guidehouse, the consultancy was acquired by private equity firm Bain Capital for $5.3 billion. In February, the U.S. Air Force awarded Guidehouse an 18-year, $12 billion contract.

Commendably, Cleveland Heights officials set aside the largest portion of the ARPA grant, $18 million, for sewer repairs. This decision, made long before Guidehouse became involved, will help the city satisfy a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency. That's $18 million we, the residents, will not have to pay.

The bulk of the remaining funds will cover infrastructure projects, with at least $2 million each allotted to the chronically neglected Noble and Taylor areas. A dozen or so nonprofit organizations will receive grants for arts programs and other services, mainly targeting youths and marginalized communities. Funds are earmarked to assist small businesses as well.

Allocations must be complete by Dec. 31, this year, with all funds spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

The process has hardly been smooth.

Guidehouse personnel (whose services are billed at $200 to $300 per hour) have repeatedly either failed to set deadlines or missed those they have set. Nonprofit staffers complain that the consultants are quick to make demands but frequently do not answer e-mails.

For arts and service groups, the application process was inexcusably chaotic. Organizations seeking funds were required to make multiple, duplicative presentations to council. They were instructed to complete a Guidehouse-supplied application form only after being awarded funding. As of mid-June, they had not yet received contracts. Some are depending on ARPA funds to support summer programs that are already underway.

Small businesses in our hardest-hit commercial districts are still waiting to apply for grants. As we write, Guidehouse has not yet provided an application form for them. How many will ultimately pursue and receive funding remains to be seen.

Guidehouse recently reported that it has run through the $250,000; presumably, the firm will pitch a two-year contract extension.

Meanwhile, council has received few if any reports on services covered by the payments to Guidehouse. According to Council President Tony Cuda and Vice President Davida Russell, ARPA is on the agenda at every one of their regular meetings with Mayor Seren; yet, they say, he does not share information for them to bring back to council.

Council's two newest members, Jim Petras and Jim Posch, have voiced urgent concerns about the consultants' inadequate performance and asked whether anyone is holding them accountable. At the June 3 Committee of the Whole meeting, Posch asked which city staff member was managing the Guidehouse contract. City Administrator Danny Williams replied, "I think it's been somewhat dispersed."

We assume the city and Guidehouse will lurch along to the Dec. 31 allocation deadline. But over the next two years there will be $38.8 million in expenditures to track and report, and dozens of projects to oversee.

Will the city pony up another $250,000 for Guidehouse or some other consulting behemoth? Or will the administration find a more effective and affordable way to ensure compliance with ARPA requirements?

Will communication with nonprofit and business grantees improve, and procedures become less burdensome?

And in the end, will this windfall leave our community stronger and more vibrant?

The answers remain to be seen.

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at

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Volume 17, Issue 7, Posted 8:26 AM, 06.26.2024