Updated: Council Focuses on Infrastructure for ARPA funds
5 Percent Reserved for Qualifying Community-Proposed Projects
Elkins, W. Va., October 11, 2021: The Elkins council is prioritizing infrastructure and physical plant projects as it decides how to spend the $3 million the city is receiving under the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). With decisions made at last week’s meeting and its meeting of August 19, council has now allocated 47 percent of the total disbursement, with a large share already reserved for long overdue repairs and upgrades to the city’s water system.
One of last week’s council actions also reserved funds for an engineering assessment to prioritize additional pressing water and sewer projects. According to Mayor Jerry Marco, the city’s infrastructure needs greatly exceed the $3 million ARPA disbursement. As a result, he says, the city doesn’t have the luxury of using much of this money for non-essential work.
“It would be wonderful if we could use ARPA money for a bunch of new facilities and programs and really build out what we’re currently providing to the people of Elkins,” says Marco. “Unfortunately, we have a lot of deferred maintenance and other really urgent work that it would be irresponsible to postpone.”
Federal rules state that ARPA funds may be used in four broad categories: to respond to the public health emergency or its negative economic impacts; to provide premium pay to workers performing essential work during the public health emergency; to replace lost public sector revenues; and to make investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.
Council’s Initial ARPA Decisions
An online survey that was available in late summer found public support for using ARPA funds to address infrastructure needs. Although an opt-in survey of this kind cannot be considered representative of the population at large, 62 percent of the 232 respondents said they would rather see the city use its ARPA disbursement to make “investments in critical infrastructure.” Only 38 percent supported using ARPA funds for responding to the public health emergency or otherwise directly addressing the effects of the pandemic.
To date, council has decided to spend around $650,000 in ARPA funds on equipment and initial supplies needed to replace decrepit water lines and correct deficiencies that have been identified at the water treatment plant.
Another $450,000 is reserved for city hall projects that will be planned in coordination with council’s Municipal Properties Committee. Likely projects include the installation of a generator to provide power for the police department and other essential city services during emergencies, as well as making the century-old building more accessible for all citizens, such as by installing an ADA-compliant wheelchair ramp and an elevator approved for passenger use.
At last week’s meeting, council decided to reserve 5 percent of the total ARPA disbursement for projects proposed by community organizations which fall into approved expenditure categories. Council also allocated $5,000 to the mayor’s Addiction and Homelessness Task Force for the purpose of training peer recovery coaches to assist persons with substance abuse disorder in seeking treatment. Two additional approved expenditures were $10,000 for a website redesign to improve accessibility and reliability and $21,350 for deployment and the first three years’ cost of a software platform to enable automated subscriptions, notifications, and online access to council and committee agendas, meeting minutes, and packets for the public.
These decisions were based on the recommendations of council’s ad hoc ARPA Advisory Committee, which was formed in June, soon after the announcement that Elkins would be receiving $3 million in ARPA Fiscal Recovery Funds (FRF). Since June, the committee has been studying U.S. Department of the Treasury rules governing the use of these funds and analyzing suggestions and requests from city staff and the public to determine the most urgent eligible projects.
One issue the committee has been grappling with is the fact that there are ambiguities concerning what projects can be paid for using ARPA funds. Certain types of projects are explicitly allowed under the published rules, such as investments in and improvements to existing water and sewer infrastructure. Other sections of the rules are less specific, however, and there is no state or federal process for obtaining advance approvals or authoritative advice.
“Cities and counties across the nation are having to do their best to interpret these rules on their own,” says Elkins City Clerk Jessica Sutton. “It’s pretty clear that the water and sewer improvements that the committee is looking at are going to be allowed, but some of the rest of the rules are more open to interpretation. We’re just going to have to do our best to get as close as possible to the intent of the language, but it is possible that some of our proposed projects could be determined ineligible during a later audit.”
For this reason, community organizations interested in applying for portions of the 5 percent council reserved for them will be asked to explain how their proposed projects fit into the federal guidelines. They will also be expected to provide detailed written budgets and other documentation as appropriate to their proposals.
“Any organizations thinking of applying to use ARPA funds need to keep in mind that this is a much more formal process than requesting contributions from the city’s general fund,” says Sutton. “The ARPA rules do allow the city to disburse some of these funds to community organizations, but they are considered subrecipients under the legislation and must follow all of the same documentation requirements and potentially be subject to the same audits as the city.”
First Bite of the Elephant
“As I said earlier this year, $3 million may sound like a lot of money but, with the high cost and competition for materials resulting from ARPA funds going out nationwide, it’s just not going to go as far as it would have a few years ago,” says Elkins Mayor Jerry Marco. “That is why I have cautioned council and citizens to taper their expectations regarding this funding.”
The mayor gave examples of just a few of the many projects the ARPA Advisory Committee is considering.
“We have a $35 million state-of-the-art water plant up on the hill, but we’re pushing water out through 100-year-old lines,” he says. “We have bridges that are in desperate need of attention. City hall is not ADA compliant. To top it all off, it’s recently been brought to our attention that the flood control system is going to need some work as well.”
Many of the city’s most pressing infrastructure needs were not brought to the attention of elected officials until late summer, according to the mayor.
“The existence of these problems is not exactly a surprise, but the magnitude of it all is only just now coming to light,” says Marco. “We can’t give an exact bottom line on all of it, but safe to say we’re looking at tens and tens of millions of dollars of urgent infrastructure work needed in the near term.”
Addressing all of these problems will carry a price tag greatly exceeding the city’s ARPA disbursement, but what that price tag is won’t be clear until after the engineering assessment council authorized last week, as well as further research and analysis by city staff.
“The remaining 53 percent of the ARPA funds we haven’t allocated yet will help us address some of this, but it’s just the first bite of the elephant,” says Marco. “We are actively seeking other funding sources as well, and of course we are following negotiations about the infrastructure bills in D.C. closely. These are problems we can solve, and we have a good team working on them, but it’s going to take time and work and it’s not all going to be paid for with free money from the federal government.”
ARPA funds are being distributed in two equal disbursements, half in 2021 and half in 2022; the city received its initial tranche of ARPA funds this summer. ARPA funds cannot be used to cover expenditures made prior to March 3, 2021. Funds must be obligated no later than December 31, 2024, and expenditures to cover those obligations must occur no later than December 31, 2026.
For more about City of Elkins planning concerning ARPA funds, including a link to the results of the online survey, visit our website: www.cityofelkinswv.com/arpa-funds.