|Autauga County’s Process of Spending Millions in ARPA Funds Slow, But Intentional|
By Hamilton Richardson
Top Photo: Scott Kramer is Autauga County’s Administrator/Treasurer
Although only a handful of residents regularly attend city council, county commission or school board meetings, they often ask similar questions of their respective representatives and in recent months, one question seems to come up over and over again—Where’s all that government money?
In more than one recent Autauga County Commission meeting, residents have come forward to ask if money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has been spent in the county and if not, why?
Scott Kramer, Autauga County’s Administrator/Treasurer, explains that although Autauga County was awarded $10.85 million of ARPA funds, deciding where that money could or should be spent is a lot more complicated than it may seem.
On March 11, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act into law, according to The National Association of Counties. The $1.9 trillion package, based on President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, was created to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, including the public health and economic impacts.
This also includes $65.1 billion in aid to counties, parishes, and boroughs across America to replace lost revenue, provide premium pay to essential workers and invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
“People are assuming that because we got the money, they can now expect things to be funded in their districts,” Kramer explained, adding that the county is taking it slow and that there are procedures that must be followed.
Kramer shared that half of the ARPA funds have been received and the county is obtaining legal advice though a program spearheaded by the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, known as Investing in Alabama Counties (IAC). IAC is a group of specialists including lawyers, architects, and engineers, that work in tandem continually updating the county about the appropriate use of the ARPA funds. Autauga County received the ARPA money in May of 2021, according to Kramer, and the Autauga County Commission signed an agreement with IAC in June of last year.
“This has been a process and has gone in stages,” Kramer said. “In the beginning we were advised to allow IAC to work through the aspects of the law so they could give us sound and credible advice on the use of the APRA funds. We paid $325,000 of the $10.85 million in ARPA Funds to seek advise from the experts. The Association of County Commissions has that reputation of helping all the counties in our state. I have been very pleased with the experts they have put in place and the responsiveness they’ve given.”
“In our case, we didn’t lose money the first year so we’re back to the original guidelines—that focused on broadband, water and sewer; however, we’re going to make that calculation every year,” said Kramer. In January 2022, the Final Rule for the American Rescue Plan was approved.”
The Final Rule did the following:
· expanded the eligible uses for certain capital expenditures
· provided support for public sector hiring
· expanded the use for premium pay for essential personnel
· broadened the eligibility of water, sewer and broadband projects
· simplified the program with an option to elect a standard allowance for revenue loss
Kramer stated that during the next few months, he will be outlining a prioritized list to the county commissioners for them to discuss and determine how the funds will be utilized.
The administrator laid out some potential priorities.
“We have been working on a wastewater treatment plant on exit 186, in our Industrial Park,” he said. “Which will open opportunities for hotels, restaurants and other retail, increasing the growth in the county. All five commissioners saw this wastewater expansion, potentially a $4 million project, as a priority prior to the federal government approving the American Rescue Plan. Instead of borrowing money for that project, utilizing the American Rescue Plan funds may be a good use of those monies.”
Kramer added, “We also have HVAC deficiencies in our courthouse and jail. The IAC, in determining needs, visited the 41 participating counties, and evaluated the HVAC systems in two buildings for each county. An engineering firm hired by IAC completed an assessment which outlined $1.4 million in HVAC deficiencies in our courthouse and jail. The roofs on those two buildings will also be evaluated for replacement.”
Another concern that commissioners have voiced is expansion of the jail’s second floor. The jail, which was built in 2001, has many needs. The architect designing the expansion anticipates the costs to be several million dollars. Kramer said that in addition to these major projects, there are also many other needs, such as non-profits and the Volunteer Fire Departments. He said the need far exceeds the funding. He also highlighted one project that has already benefited from ARPA funds at the R.H. Kirkpatrick Agricultural Arena in Autaugaville.
“We purchased six large fans, approximately $59,000, that include the UVC air cleaning lights, which also combat germs,” he said. “This should encourage greater use of the facility.”
Kramer said that within the next few months, along with the generation of next year's budget, commissioners will work to evaluate the usage of the American Rescue Plan funds.