Opinion: Irvine City Staff Seek to Enrich Themselves With COVID-19 Relief Funds
Three million dollars is a lot of money. That is approximately how much Irvine city staff and the Irvine Finance Commission propose to spend on a new City Hall gym, shower doors, and city employee bonuses.
Irvine will receive $56 million direct one-time payment from the Federal Government for spending on areas within the city negatively impacted by COVID-19. Specifically, according to the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), funds should be used primarily for:
- Public health response or its negative economic impact, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel and hospitality.
- Workers performing essential work during the COVID-19 public health emergency via premium pay to eligible workers.
- Government services to the extent of a reduction in revenue due to COVID-19.
- To make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructures.
How did proposed spending on a City Hall gym, shower doors and city employee bonuses sneak into the overall ARPA spending plan? It starts from Irvine City staff. This includes the powerful Interim City Manager, Marianna Marysheva, Assistant City Manager, Michelle Grettenberg, and a host of other directors of various Irvine city departments. They compile a “wish list” of items they want the ARPA funds to go toward and send their proposal to the Finance Commission, chaired by John Park.
The Finance Commission finalized the proposal on September 27, which will be presented to the City Council on October 12 for final approval. Changes, revisions and amendments may be made anytime leading up to final approval from the City Council. Here is the proposed plan:
While much of Irvine’s proposed ARPA spending fits neatly within ARPA’s intended purpose, three million dollars worth of spending items fail to meet that standard, and constitute an attempt by the city to divert funds away from public relief in favor of amenities and bonuses for city staff. Despite this amount constituting a small fraction of the $56 million dollars, it sends a clear message. This city feels entitled to enrich themselves and they believe nobody is looking. The city, in effect, is skimming off the top of ARPA funds via city employee bonuses and modernized City Hall facilities before investing in COVID-19 related areas that will benefit the public at large. This is not just bad optics. It also means those in most need would be deprived of three million dollars.
For instance, city staff and the Finance Commission seek $625,000 in ARPA funds to modernize the city’s employee fitness center and locker rooms located at Irvine City Hall, accessible only to city employees. And an additional $10,000 is proposed for glass shower doors. This expense has absolutely nothing to do with compensating for losses caused by the pandemic.
The pandemic did not impact the City Hall gym, shower doors and locker rooms. This brazen attempt to pay for City Hall improvements could potentially be a political favor. After all, Interim City Manager Marysheva, is seeking to remain in her position without the “interim” title and likely needs as many allies as possible to stay in power. Are these spending items Marysheva’s way of buying trust from other city staff and the labor unions? Whatever the reason, someone within Irvine city government is trying to hand cash and prizes to others within city government by shamefully using pandemic relief funds to do it. That is unjust.
Regarding the $2.3 million in kickbacks for city employees, one can only ask: If that money is allocated to employees, what wrong is being righted? Which employee saw a reduction in salary or benefits? How specifically were city employers harmed by the pandemic? Government positions have largely been unaffected by the pandemic. Most city, state and Federal employees still enjoy full salary, full benefits and the perk of full-time telework. In the city’s case, many city employees have the luxury of a pension, there were no layoffs, and salaries were untouched. Are we going to give three million dollars to pensioners who were never impacted by the pandemic?
Understandably, the Finance Commission plan has received some negative attention in lieu of these dubious spending items. The OC Justice Fund spoke at the Commission’s special meeting on September 27, requesting that these funds (and funds earmarked for athletic field renovations and drainage) be redirected toward non-profit legal services or to farmers who work in Irvine. Moreover, the Voice of OC recently highlighted Irvine’s proposed spending plan, asserting that City Hall upgrades were not even remotely related to the pandemic, and stating that the city is instead spending heavily on its own staff.
On October 12, 2021 at 4pm, Irvine City Council will be presented with the proposed plan during their regular council meeting. We will find out if the Irvine City Council will do the right thing and remove the self-serving items from the plan. If they do not, then public trust in our elected officials will further be diminished, and the spirit of ARPA relief funds policy would be seriously violated.
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Chris WongOctober 6, 2021 at 12:20 pm
Modernization of the facilities needs to done and I think using a small percentage of these funds to accomplish that is a good use of the provided resources.
I’d like to understand the Broadband/Housing section more and why a huge bulk of money there isn’t broken out.
Branda LinOctober 6, 2021 at 12:32 pm
There’s a difference between needs and wants. Having more gym equipment at City Hall isn’t a need but it would be great to have I’m sure. New shower doors? I’d be curious to see what condition the city hall facilities that they are looking to upgrade are in. But to be considering such expenses when there are dire needs in our community is morally irresponsible. This is covid relief money. We have neighbors who are really struggling.
Doug ElliottOctober 6, 2021 at 1:59 pm
I agree with much that Jeremy says, especially regarding the City Hall locker room and shower improvements. In my view, these funds should not be spent on any City Hall improvements unless they directly protect or enhance public health.
With regard to public employee premium pay, I feel a need for more detailed information. While Jeremy derides this as a “bonus,” he does so after acknowledging that ARPA expressly authorizes “premium pay to eligible workers” who were “performing essential work during the COVID-19 public health emergency.” In my view several questions need to be answered. Which categories of employees would receive the premium pay, and do they meet the federal criterion? How many employees are we talking about, and how would the premium pay be apportioned? Would each eligible employee receive the same dollar amount (perhaps the most equitable distribution) or would it be a percentage of their salary? I’m going to withhold judgment on this aspect of the proposal until satisfactory answers are forthcoming.
Additionally, I must object to some terminology used by Jeremy that I consider inappropriate. He calls the premium pay “kickbacks.” Merriam-Webster defines “kickback” as “a return of a part of a sum received often because of confidential agreement or coercion.” In other words, a kickback is a form of bribe, as when a city official receives a payment from a contractor in return for award of the contract. Such arrangements are illegal, and there’s no evidence that anything of the kind is occurring here.
Jeremy also complains that public employees receive the “luxury of a pension” and suggests that “pensioners” will be receiving premium pay. I see no indication that anyone other than active employees would be eligible, and I emphatically reject the notion that a decent pension is a “luxury.” Are sick leave and health insurance also to be considered luxuries? I don’t think so. Not so long ago, defined benefit pensions were the norm in this country, in the private sector as well as the public. With the decline of unionization, not only have wages stagnated, but many corporations have abandoned defined benefit pension plans in favor of grossly inadequate defined contribution plans. We should be advocating that all workers receive decent pension benefits instead of begrudging those who do.
ChristinaOctober 9, 2021 at 8:20 am
The expenditure of Covid 19 relief funds on shower doors and new gym equipment, is clearly an unwise use of these moneys. City Hall was closed during most of last year.. These dollars should be used for direct loss from the pandemic, such as struggling non profits, business losses, not City Hall bonuses or gym equipment.I guess they could also authorize and set aside some “pandemic dollars” for more “campaign money use” for the mailroom to support electeds canpaigns coming up in 2022?
Common sense has fled the halls of local government in Irvine.
Thank you for this informative article!
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