Routt County will get nearly $5M in federal COVID-19 aid. How can it be spent?

Routt County will get nearly $5 million in pandemic relief aid from the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in March and will deliver counties across the country more than $65 billion.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do some things that we would otherwise not be able to afford to do,” Commissioner Tim Corrigan said. “I don’t think any of us wants to wake up five years from now and think we somehow misspent this money.”

The money is meant in part to prop up local governments struggling from decreases in revenue caused by the pandemic, but Routt County’s budget is in much better shape than most. County sales tax revenue in 2020 exceeded budgeted projections by more than 10%, coming in about 3% higher than 2019.

Still, some individual revenues are down, and the county could use some of the aid money to replace that revenue, according to recent guidance from the Department of the Treasury. Aid money earmarked for revenue replacement could be spent on pretty much any expenditure the county has, County Finance Director Dan Strnad said.

“In the end, we want something that we can point to that is substantial for the county and is going to be here forever,” Commissioner Tim Redmond said. “I think we are looking at putting it into infrastructure in the county.”

Strnad said the county would get half of the total money this year and the other half a year later. Knowing this money is coming, the county reached out to department heads about what potential expenditures they thought the money could support.

Commissioner Beth Melton said commissioners and county staff are exploring the best ways to get the community involved as well, getting input from people outside of the county’s staff and potentially unearthing ideas they wouldn’t have thought of.

“I don’t know exactly what that will look like, but I think that will be really important,” Melton said.

In addition to revenue replacement, the guidance from the Treasury also allows money to be spent on supporting the public health response to COVID-19, which would likely allow some money to go toward the new Health and Human Services building, which will house the Public Health Department.

Aid money could also be used to address negative economic impacts of the pandemic and could offer additional hazard pay to essential workers. The other two categories of spending are to make investments in water and sewer infrastructure, and in broadband infrastructure. Two potential projects to use this money toward are wastewater treatment facilities in Phippsburg and Milner that need to be upgraded.

Each of the systems were installed in the 1980s, and County Environmental Health Director Scott Cowman said they no longer meet seepage regulations that have since been updated. Replacing those systems with the existing lagoon style system has been estimated to cost about $600,000 for each, but the county is weighing whether upgrading to a mechanical plant that would be more future-proof, which Cowman said would likely be between $1 million to $1.5 million.

Redmond said he expects more changes in wastewater-related regulations in the coming years, and he would favor putting in a mechanical plant that could serve the county for decades and easily accommodate new growth.

Some of the needs of the community are obvious, Melton said. Whether they can be addressed with this money is still unclear.

“If there are ways that we could invest this money that will help support the challenges that this community is facing with regards to housing, with regards to child care, that to me is a no brainer,” Melton said, acknowledging that the Treasury guidance does not clearly say the aid money could be used for those expenses.

Strnad said if the county wanted to use this money for housing, they would likely have to get “very creative” with the justification. One idea could have this money go toward water infrastructure as part of a larger housing project funded elsewhere.

Melton said she also wanted to look into if and how the money could be used to address the current hiring issues hampering businesses across the Yampa Valley in fields from child care to service jobs and even nursing.

“I feel like I know the top five of what are the pain points for our community right now, and I would love to look at if there are some creative ways to use this funding to help fix those things in the long term,” Melton said.

The county has not committed to spending any of the almost $5 million at this point. Melton said she cares more about making good investments than getting it out the door quickly, but she doesn’t want them to drag their feet either.

“It is not our money; it is money for everybody in the county.” Redmond said. “When you start looking at some of these projects, $5 million can go very quickly.”

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