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ARP advisory panel, commissioners begin planning for use of COVID-relief funds

by Jeff Haldiman | January 14, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

The timing for the first meeting of the American Rescue Plan Advisory Committee for the Cole County Commission couldn't have come at a better time.

The final guidance for how to use ARP funds had just been announced.

The commissioners chose nine people to serve on the panel. The committee members are: Roger Schwartze, who was named chairman; Alan Mudd, who was made vice chairman; Jayme Abbott; Connie Cunningham; Herb Kuhn; Jim Hoffman; Alan Reinkemeyer; Gary Wilbers; and Chris Yarnell.

The commission has envisioned the committee as helping advise it on potential needs of the public and be a resource in the decision-making. Ultimately, the commission has the final say on how ARP money is spent.

Teresa Seymour with BKD, the Springfield accounting firm the county hired to help guide it on how ARP funds can be used, told the group Thursday afternoon ARP money can be used for long-term projects which weren't doable under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES).

In May, the county received $7.4 million in ARP funds for COVID-19 relief and is expected to get $7.5 million later this year to give them $14.9 million. Western District Commissioner Harry Otto said that breaks down to about $200 per person in the county since the funds are distributed based on the size of the counties/communities.

Already, the commission has approved $1.5 million of ARP funds be used to give premium pay to county staff who have had to face hazards while working during the pandemic.

Along with using funds for premium pay, the final federal ARP guidance shows local governments can use the monies to: replace lost public sector revenue; respond to public health and economic impacts from the coronavirus; and do water, sewer and broadband infrastructure projects.

The big news out of the final guidance, Seymour said, was under replacing lost public revenue. The federal government has set a standard allowance of up $10 million.

"These funds can be used for anything that the local government traditionally provided, and it's very broad," Seymour said. "It also allows for these funds to be used to support COVID-19 public health and economic response. That could include medical expenses and behavioral health expenses. The assistance could go to households, small business and non-profits, which would be similar to how CARES funds were used."

In their discussions, committee members talked about potentially taking applications, like what was done for the CARES money. However, eventually commissioners and the group said the commission needed to classify what "buckets" to distribute the ARP money to and from there get recommendations from the advisory committee to determine the needs of the county. That could be done through a public survey or just in meetings the commissioners and committee members had with others in their respective communities.

If the county wanted to do infrastructure projects, Otto said, it probably should look at working together with the communities. Since infrastructure projects tend to cost more, bringing more entities to the table might make it possible to do more work. Every incorporated community received some ARP funds.

"We've heard from a couple of water districts (Nos. 1 and 4) about needs they thought could be addressed with ARP funds as well," Otto said.

"We could do some matching funds, maybe, to put with the money they got to do projects," Bushman added.

Seymour agreed with Bushman's analysis, saying she's seeing other communities getting together and doing big projects that many would benefit from, such as a water/sewer project.

Last year, the commission had been looking at using ARP funds to improve broadband infrastructure, but they have backed off from that after finding many broadband providers are already in the process, or have future plans in place, to do such work.

"Our public works director (Eric Landwehr) has his eye on using ARP funds for stormwater work," Otto said. "We have some areas of the county that need retention basins."

In October, Landwehr asked the commission to consider using ARP funds to do studies and construct projects for stormwater mitigation in the Apache Flats, Westview Heights and Natchez Trace areas that experienced flooding last summer.

Landwehr said they could use the money to do analysis this year, do design and easement acquisition in 2023 and do construction in 2024.

On Thursday, EMS Chief Eric Hoy and Sheriff John Wheeler sent a joint letter to the commission, asking they set aside $2.5 million in ARP money for public safety use.

"We're requesting that this be done through the normal approval process by the three commissioners," Hoy said. "We have nothing to hide, but some of this maybe of a sensitive nature."

Hoy said most of the items are infrastructure-related and fall in their 10-year strategic plan.

"These funds give us the unique capability to basically move technology and response capabilities, from a public safety standpoint, ahead by a full decade on one felt swoop," Hoy said.

Advisory committee members asked Hoy if he could elaborate more.

"From a communications standpoint, improving our footprint for not only our two agencies, but all emergency service agencies," Hoy said. "If we had a large-scale incident, we are looking at improvements that could give us the ability to easily communicate with one another. The sheriff would also request some of these funds be used to send patrol officers to the academy for training. EMS is specifically asking for new ventilators for patients with respiratory illnesses, which we have seen the need for during the pandemic."

Committee co-chairman Mudd added he hoped monies could be used to address mental health problems which have increased among youth and adults during the pandemic.

Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher suggested, and the other commissioners agreed, they come up with how they want to have ARP funds distributed by the Jan. 27 commission meeting and to have another meeting with the advisory committee around that same time.

The county has until Dec. 31, 2024, to obligate the funds to specific purposes and to spend the funds by Dec. 31, 2026.

More News

Final guidance on how to use funds announced; ARP advisory committee assembled

Print Headline: Cole County begins exploring how to use COVID-relief funds

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