Early last week, the sun just starting to rise over Dayton, Ohio, Zac Wyrick and 17 other firefighter recruits panted as they hauled fire hose up several flights of stairs at the department's training center.
It's something Wyrick, 28, has been waiting to do for years. He was inspired to apply to join the force after talking to EMTs following a tragedy: His brother died of an opioid overdose in 2017.
But his dream was delayed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Dayton's budget hard. The city wasn't sure it would have enough money for a new training class, and waited for months to see if it would get money in the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package passed by Democrats in March.
"I knew it was going to take awhile. I didn't expect it to take this long, though," Wyrick said.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley had been one of the loudest voices lobbying for state and local governments to get money from the COVID aid package. "If we don't get any federal money — no fire class," she told NPR back in February.
Dayton got the money, but in the end, the city didn't need it for the fire class. That's because the local economy had bounced back more quickly than forecast.
"We saw a huge uptick, frankly, in corporate taxes coming back really heavily. And so that gave us the opportunity to kind of breathe and then figure out, OK: How can we spend this to make the most impact in Dayton?" Whaley said in an interview.
Dayton isn't alone in this. Cities and states all over the country found their budgets fared better than expected. And now, they're looking at new and unexpected ways to spend the $360 billion in COVID aid.
"Cities and counties and states, many have been pinching pennies for a very, very long time," said Alan Berube, a researcher at the Brookings Institution who specializes in economic policies for cities.
"The American Rescue Plan is forcing them to change their mindset from one of scarcity to one of abundance in a very short period of time," Berube said.
Some of Dayton's COVID aid could go toward tearing down abandoned houses
Dayton is taking its time to plan what to do with its share of the aid package, which has to be obligated by the end of 2024.
"This is a real once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Shelley Dickstein, city manager, who described the funding as a chance to do "transformative things" for the community. "The city of Dayton has never received $138 million in federal grant funding — and it probably never will again," she said.
The city has held a series of community meetings to discuss how the funds should be spent, and they also posted a survey to get feedback.
"We just have never had this opportunity before and I think that's what's really exciting about it," said Whaley, who is the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "I talk to mayors weekly, and we want to get it right," she said.
One leading proposal in Dayton: using some of the money to demolish boarded-up homes, the kind that scar working-class neighborhoods like Westwood, where Whaley — now running for governor — pointed out a house that has been abandoned so long that vines have taken it over.
Residents also favored spending to support Black and brown businesses, addressing crime, housing and improving playgrounds and parks.
Amaha Sellassie said he wants to make sure people living in long-neglected neighborhoods have a say in how the money is spent. "There's strips of houses, where ... it looks like a bomb was dropped," said the community activist, who is a sociology instructor at Sinclair Community College in Dayton.
"We've accepted the unacceptable," Sellassie said, explaining the COVID money could begin to reverse decades of economic disparity in the city.
"We haven't had this much resources coming into the community in, I don't know how long," he said.
The unexpected funds could fuel political arguments
Gene Sperling, the White House official overseeing the funds, said there's nothing wrong with cities taking some time for "thoughtful planning" in how to spend the relief.
"The American Rescue Plan was always designed to be both about dealing with immediate crisis and about giving states and localities the firepower and flexibility to ensure we have a strong and sustainable recovery," Sperling said in an interview.
He said Democrats learned their lesson back in 2009 responding to recession after the financial crisis. Back then, the big stimulus package emphasized quick spending on shovel-ready projects. But when the recovery stagnated, there wasn't anything there for struggling local governments. Sperling said the Biden administration wanted flexibility in case of future bumps in the road.
But when President Biden and Democrats were pushing for the $1.9 trillion bill to pass, Republicans argued not all of that money was urgently needed. That case will likely get louder ahead of next year's congressional elections, especially with cities and states now using the emergency aid for long-deferred wish list items.
"I think that will be possibly a talking point for Republicans in the next couple years," said Dave Luketic, who was a political consultant for former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican. "They're already leaning that way," Luketic said.
But whether that message resonates with voters will depend on where the economy is closer to the election, Luketic said. "The jury is still out," he said.
In Dayton schools, it's easy to see COVID aid money at work
The COVID aid bill was so big that there are other programs that may determine whether voters ultimately see it as wasteful or a success. There were direct relief checks to families, aid for businesses and money for schools.
On a visit to Louise Troy Elementary School in Dayton, it was easy to see the COVID dollars at work. On one side of a third-grade classroom, Jessica Lomax helped one half of the class learn to read. On the other side, Michelle Isaacs worked with students on math. After 45 minutes, the groups switched.
Dayton Public Schools hired nearly 90 teachers over the summer to put two teachers in each first-, second- and third-grade classroom. It may seem extravagant, but superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said it gives kids more individual attention after more than a year of being out of the classroom.
"I can teach 10 students at the same time that my partner teacher is teaching 10 students. Think about how much more I can see with 10 as opposed to 20," Lolli explained.
Lolli said there's enough funding from the aid package to continue this experiment for two years and if it works, she'd like to find a way to keep it going.