Mayor Mike Coffman has brought back to life his proposal to ban urban camping in Aurora. The proposal would give those camping within the city limits seven days to relocate, on the condition their is an alternate location, provided by the city, available to relocate. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado
People without homes camping on public property in Aurora. City lawmakers are considering a new “campus” to host temporary housing and services for people experiencing homelessess.
Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | City Council members split up approximately $46 million in federal COVID-19 aid on Saturday, tentatively earmarking funds for homeless sheltering, mental health care, bonuses for 911 dispatchers and more.

The “quick wins” funded Saturday will be the latest city projects to benefit from the American Rescue Plan Act, which is already being tapped for local grants for businesses, bonuses for police officers and temporary shelter for the homeless.

The city received about $65.4 million in one-time assistance through the 2021 pandemic relief bill. That’s on top of more than $33.8 million set aside for Aurora by Arapahoe and Adams counties under 2020’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Council members voted first to add projects to a list of selections that was winnowed during subsequent rounds of voting.

The four priciest line items were slated to receive more than half of the funding — $7.6 million to remodel the interiors of eight Aurora Fire Rescue stations, a $7 million contribution for Aurora Mental Health Center’s new Acute Care Center at 1290 S. Potomac St., a “reserve fund” of nearly $5.3 million, and $5 million to match state and county funds for a city-run homelessness services campus.

Councilmember Francoise Bergan suggested the city carve the $7 million for the Acute Care Center out of a $10 million block of competitive funding for infrastructure projects related to the treatment of mental illness and drug abuse. The remaining $3 million was left intact.

She faced opposition from council progressives, who said organizations other than Aurora Mental Health Center wanted to apply for funds as well. Bergan said $7 million was the same amount being requested of Adams and Arapahoe counties.

“I’m asking that we not make Aurora Mental Health go through the RFP (process),” Bergan said.

“I support the campus, but there’s other needs as well,” said Councilmember Juan Marcano as he voted against the proposal.

The statewide system of mental health centers, including Aurora Mental Health Center have come under new scrutiny after a joint investigation by the Colorado News Collaborative, a statewide consortium of newspapers, including Sentinel Colorado, The Colorado Sun and The Denver Post. The On Edge investigation revealed massive unmet need managed by a group of private, non-profit agencies not subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as government agencies.

The state is currently creating a new system to oversee funding provided to the agencies.

Mayor Mike Coffman broke the tie in favor of dedicating $7 million to Aurora Mental Health Center’s new complex, while Alison Coombs, Curtis Gardner, Marcano, Ruben Medina and Crystal Murillo voted in opposition.

Bergan also suggested the creation of the reserve fund. She originally proposed to set aside $10 million in ARPA dollars for the fund, but that amount was cut down to $5,279,054 by the end of the discussion to accommodate other projects.

She later moved successfully to cut a proposed $15 million contribution for a homelessness services campus down to $5 million.

The facility could include permanent supportive housing, a day center, temporary shelter space and limited medical care, and could cost between $80 million and $110 million, with a more accurate estimate pending the hire of an architect and design team. It is expected to be built on a five-acre site where the Aurora Day Resource Center is now.

In response to a question from Coffman, director of housing and community services Jessica Prosser said the state was interested in supporting the project, but that the city and partners, including counties, would be expected to chip in 25% of the total cost.

Prosser said she thought the city could still pledge $10 million and be in a good position, though Bergan stood by her original proposal of cutting the contribution down to $5 million, saying the city could draw down the newly-created reserve fund if necessary.

“I’m just trying to get us where we can support a bunch of projects,” Bergan said. “I’m not even sure about this campus yet. I still need a lot more information.”

The reduction was implemented with Coffman, Coombs, Marcano, Medina and Murillo voicing opposition.

Saturday also saw the defeat of a proposal by Gardner to award $8,000 in retention bonuses to Aurora Fire Rescue and Aurora 911 employees. Council members voted against adding it to the shortlist of projects, instead welcoming a competing proposal by Dustin Zvonek that focused on the dispatch center exclusively.

Zvonek’s $780,000 proposal awards retention bonuses of $8,000 to Aurora 911 employees and bonuses of $2,000 to new hires through 2022.

Bonuses of $1,000 would also be awarded to employees who recruit another person into the department, though Zvonek said that could be paid for out of vacancy savings rather than federal rescue-bill dollars.

While Councilmember Angela Lawson received support to incorporate a $300,000 allocation to restart the Morning Star Adult Day Program, City Manager Jim Twombly told the group the program did not close down for lack of funding.

He did not respond to city council questions about why it had shut down, asking them to wait for a discussion planned Feb. 7.

Other projects included in the approximately $45.9 million allocation were:

  • $4.5 million in renovations for city parks, cut in half from an original proposal of $9 million for 12 projects, including irrigation work, playgrounds and other efforts.
  • $2.5 million in competitive grants open to local nonprofits.
  • $2.5 million for competitive grants for small businesses seeking help with startup costs, tenants, inventory and other operational costs.
  • $2 million in competitive funds to help small kitchens and eateries get set up in areas with limited infrastructure or infrastructure that needs to be modified.
  • $1.5 million to match state funds being contributed for the Ridge View Supportive Residential Community, which will offer addiction treatment services to the general public and transitional housing for adults experiencing homelessness who want to recover from drug addiction.
  • $1.4 million for renovations to the Aurora Animal Shelter, which Prosser said is housed in an aging building, adding that they want to renovate the reception area, address rusting kennels, increase available space and that there is only one area where sick animals can be quarantined.
  • $1 million to increase the number of shelter beds available during cold weather.
  • $750,000 to provide in-person city employees with cubicles and to buy and replace laptop computers. The original proposal of $1.5 million was halved following a motion by Danielle Jurinsky, who said this and other technology and accessibility proposals related to the city weren’t as urgent, because the council is meeting remotely.
  • $500,000 to improve accessibility in city council chambers, including improving the design of the room for people who use mobility aids such as wheelchairs and canes, added to the list at the request of Marcano.
  • $250,000 for other accessibility features in council chambers, including automatic door-openers and signage, an adjustable height podium, translation software and headsets for amplified audio.
  • $240,000 to add hybrid meeting technology to city conference rooms.
  • $50,000 in funding for Aurora libraries to purchase more virtual content such as e-books, movies and music.