How will Routt County spend its $4.9M in pandemic relief aid?

Commissioners floated the idea of sending residents a survey to get feedback about their top priorities for the county’s American Rescue Plan Act dollars

Routt County has the first half of the nearly $5 million in pandemic relief aid it will get from the American Rescue Plan Act in the bank. Now officials need to decide how to spend it.

Commissioners reviewed a long list of potential projects with varying degrees of specificity suggested by county staff Monday, with many of the biggest ticket items being water infrastructure within the county.

But commissioners have also said they want to ensure the public gets to weigh in for how this money is spent, and they intend to take their time to choose where the money goes.

“I’ve been advocating for input from the community since day one,” Commissioner Beth Melton said. “We’re not going to want to spend all this money at once; we’re going to want to say generally this is how we want to spend that money.”

The county will get a total of $4.9 million from the federal government in two tranches, the first of which has already been received. The rest is expected to arrive in about a year, County Budget Director Dan Strnad said. The money needs to be contracted for spending by the end of 2024, with it actually needing to be spent by 2026.

Commissioners did not make any decisions Monday but directed staff to explore what the logistics of sending out a survey to residents about what priorities they may have would be. They also said they wanted to use that survey to help decide how much of the money should be spent of various priorities.

“We have a pie, and we can divide it up into slices,” Commissioner Tim Corrigan said. “You’re talking about big slices. For instance, water and sewer, affordable housing, child care and a couple of other things.”

As for what these priorities are, Melton said she had an idea of what they might be, but the community may disagree how important each is in context of the other. The potential survey would aim to get this feedback.

There are six basic criteria laid out for what the money can be spent on from the U.S. Department of Treasury. It can be spent on pandemic related public health expenses, water and sewer infrastructure, increasing broadband access, to address negative economic activities from the pandemic and to give essential workers additional hazard pay.

The money can also be used to replace revenues that are down because of the pandemic. The county is projecting that overall revenues will be higher than expected this year, but some individual areas may see a decrease. If used to make up for lost revenues, the aid money loses many of the restrictions for how it can be spent.

“Basically, that money can be used on any reasonable government effort,” Strnad said.

Staff put together about 30 different project ideas for commissioners, with about a dozen of them having to do with water infrastructure upgrades in Phippsburg and Milner. Others were less specific, with one suggestion being to provide affordable housing for employees and another simply saying “broadband.”

Some proposed expenses, such as body cameras for the Routt County Sheriff’s Office, are likely not eligible to be covered by the aid. Still, other counties are getting creative in how they want to spend this money.

Strnad said there could be several justifications for spending on things like affordable housing or child care in the Treasury guidance, and he wasn’t sure which one specifically other counties were using.

For example, while commissioners dismissed the idea of offering all essential workers some kind of pay bump, it could be used to target shortages in certain industries like child care.

“There is definitely limits,” Strnad said. “But I think that if you can somehow define that there was an impact from COVID, there might be a way to make it work.”

Commissioners said they were not interested in devoting any of this money to support construction of the county’s new Health and Human Services Building, something they had mused about when the prospect of getting the money arose earlier this year.

“I don’t think any of us were ever really excited about the prospect of gobbling up ARPA funds to build a building that we’ve already decided we needed to build anyway,” Corrigan said.

Scott Cowman, environmental health director for the county, had the most suggestions of any department, including replacement of wastewater treatment plants in Phippsburg and Milner. Cowman said that he hoped they would be able to use some of the ARPA dollars to leverage more grant money for these projects, stretching what the county can do with the money.

“Remember when $4.9 million sounded like a lot of money?” Corrigan said at the close of the meeting.

“I remember when there were members of the community who thought it was a lot more money that it actually is,” Melton responded. “But that will continue to be the case.”

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