From sewers to golf courses, cities see green with new federal dollars in covid relief

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Duluth, Minnesota, hires a social worker to help people with addiction and mental health issues.

Pueblo, Colorado, has started paying homeless residents to clean up the city’s streets.

Palm Beach Gardens, Florida in Palm Beach County, home to 160 golf courses, is building a new golf course.

These are among the thousands of ways that cities and counties have started spending the first tranche of relief money from the US bailout law passed by Congress in March.

This economic bailout provides $ 130 billion to cities and counties – with few restrictions on how the money can be spent. For many, this was their first economic relief received directly from the federal government.

The states received $ 195 billion from ARPA. They had secured other stimulus funds in earlier relief plans, including the CARES Act last year.

The injection of dollars into cities and counties is intended to help residents and businesses affected by the covid-19 pandemic, invest in long-term projects or supplement budgets affected by lower tax revenues caused by closure restrictions and economic downturns.

Half of the money was made available in May and the rest will be available next year. Communities have until 2026 to spend it.

The money cannot be used to reduce taxes, increase funds for rainy days, pay for legal settlements, or strengthen pension funds.

Other than that, local governments can spend the money virtually however they want. Many cities, such as Buffalo, New York and Houston, initially classify a large portion of the allowance as “income replacement,” meaning they will use the funds to make up for deficits from what would have been expected. if the pandemic had not occurred. This gives them the most flexibility, according to a report from the Brookings Institution.

Many jurisdictions, including West Palm Beach, Florida, and Livonia, Minnesota, have allocated a portion of ARPA to employee bonuses.

New York’s Chautauqua County approved nearly $ 95,000 for handguns and bulletproof vests for its sheriff’s office. The county, which receives an average of 120 inches of snow per year, also approved $ 480,000 for two snow plows / dump trucks and $ 810,000 for a snow blower.

Dubois County, Indiana, is using $ 350,000 of its $ 8 million to add campsites and a bathroom and make other improvements to a county park.

ARPA – a $ 1.9 trillion package that, in addition to relief money for localities, included funding for covid tests, unemployment benefits, child tax credits and a host of ‘other agendas – was a top priority for President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats after taking control of Washington earlier this year. The law was passed without the backing of Republicans, who argued that previous funding for Covid victim assistance had not been fully spent and its effects were still being realized.

Echoes of that argument still reverberate on Capitol Hill as Republicans fight Democrats over their plans to increase spending on social programs like Medicare and Medicaid and climate change.

Unlike past federal tax relief efforts, including the CARES Act, ARPA provides support to thousands of cities and counties. Cities of over 50,000 people receive money based on population size, poverty rates and overcrowding. Small towns receive money based on population.

The CARES Act has provided money to 160 of the nation’s 1,300 largest counties, but ARPA’s money goes to over 3,000 counties, said Eryn Hurley, the association’s deputy director of government affairs. national counties. “This money is very vital,” she said, noting how the pandemic and the economic downturn have cost counties billions of dollars. “The counties are working hard to invest these funds as quickly as possible for their communities and residents,” she said.

Alan Berube, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution that tracks relief dollars, said it was the first new massive grant funding program given to city and counties in nearly 50 years with spending requirements also flexible. Most local governments, he added, are still trying to figure out how to spend the money.

“You have to use this money to deal with the impact of the pandemic or an underlying condition in the community exacerbated by the pandemic,” Berube said.

Some cities, including Seattle and Austin, Texas, are using the money to build affordable housing and programs to deal with the growing number of homeless people.

Berube said the Treasury Department might question whether Palm Beach Gardens, a largely upscale town just north of West Palm Beach, can use $ 2 million of its $ 2.9 million ARPA to help build a golf field.

“It’s a very aggressive reading of the regulations,” he said.

Palm Beach Gardens officials defend the spending as “an investment in our community.” Candice Temple, a city spokeswoman, said the money will go towards development of the 115-acre site, which will include a normal-3 golf course, clubhouse and bike paths. The total cost of the project is $ 16.8 million, with the remainder coming from bond financing. The city plans to hire seven people to work on the course.

Pueblo, Colo. Mayor Nicholas Gradisar said his town was grateful for the money, even though sales tax revenue rose 3% last year and rose 30% in 2021. He attributes the increase in federal stimulus checks received and used for shopping and eating out.

“Overall it could have been a lot worse,” Gradisar said.

Her city used part of its ARPA funding to give its employees a $ 500 incentive payment to get vaccinated. The money helped improve the vaccination rate from 43% in early August to around 66% when the program ended on September 15.

“Obviously, we are delighted that more people have signed up, but we still have a long way to go,” Gradisar said.

Pueblo will also use part of ARPA’s funding to tackle homelessness and lack of child care, he said.

The city invested $ 500,000 in a summer reading program that rewards children with $ 100 for completing their homework and has targeted $ 376,000 for mental health specialists to work with police. It is also paying people in a homeless shelter to clean the streets of the city. So far, Pueblo has committed $ 2.3 million of the $ 18 million ARPA it expects to receive.

Martin Brown, program director for the National League of Cities, said city officials had contacted the organization to ask how they could use the money. “For the $ 65 billion in revenue, there are probably 65 billion ways to spend it,” he said.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and surveys, KHN is one of the three main operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.


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