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story.lead_photo.caption In this June 21, 2016 file photo, Cole County's Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher listens to residents as they address him and other commissioners during a public meeting. Photo by News Tribune / News Tribune.

The Cole County Commission may assemble an advisory group of residents to help advise them on how to best use federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The commission Tuesday held its first public discussion with representatives of the Springfield-based accounting firm of BKD, which the county hired in July to give commissioners guidance as they work through the American Rescue Plan. The same firm assisted the county last year to deal with spending of funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act.

BKD officials said the ARP funding objectives allow for broad usage of the funds. The county is expected to get more than $14.9 million; it received more than $7.5 million of that amount in June.

The ARP funds can be used to: decrease the spread of COVID-19, replace lost revenue, support economic stabilization for households and businesses, and address public health and economic challenges that "have contributed to the unequal impact of the pandemic."

There is also broad flexibility on how to use the funds, including public health expenditures, addressing negative economic impacts caused by the pandemic, replacing lost public sector revenue experienced during the pandemic as well as providing premium pay (additional support) for essential workers who are at high risk of potentially becoming infected with the virus while performing their jobs.

The funds could also be used for investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, which is something the commission has been looking at. According to BKD, this could also include another area the county has been wanting to address — stormwater infrastructure.

"I would think, though, that whatever happens with the federal infrastructure bill will have some type of impact on what happens with the leniency within this funding," BKD representative Danny Martinez said.

"Things are still so subjective that I think an advisory board of citizens would be good for us to have," Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Hoelscher said.

Western District Commissioner Harry Otto and Presiding Commissioner Sam Bushman agreed, with Bushman adding he has had conversations with officials from the Missouri River Regional Library and Public Water District No. 1 who are interested in being able to get ARP funds.

"We've got some people that are lined up waiting to apply," Bushman said. "I know our medical director at the Cole County Health Department is concerned about the mental health of adults and children due to the effects of the pandemic, and I do think that is an issue."

Commissioners are looking to have a group of five to six members and possibly putting out an application for those interested in serving to fill out on the county's website.

Plans are to continue to have regular ARP updates at commission meetings for the foreseeable future.

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

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