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County plans use of pandemic relief funds

Chris Whitlow, Brian Carter

Franklin County Administrator Christopher Whitlow, left, and Franklin County Finance Director Brian Carter, right, answer a question at an April 13 Franklin County Board of Supervisors budget meeting. The county will take advantage of expanded federal COVID-19 relief spending guidelines to reduce the burden of federal reporting requirements.

Franklin County plans to take advantage of updated spending parameters to make some of its direct federal COVID-19 aid easier to use.

“Let’s use $10 million for our sheriff’s office, public safety and maybe even 911 salaries out of ARPA money, [and then] use those savings for broadband and our water and sewer, which gets us out of the onerous federal reporting requirements,” Franklin County Finance Director Brian Carter said at an April 19 Franklin County Board of Supervisors meeting.

ARPA, or the American Rescue Plan Act, is a March 2021 COVID-19 pandemic relief package from the federal government. Franklin County received its ARPA allocation, worth about $10.9 million, in 2021.

In October, the Franklin County board designated roughly $3.2 million for water and sewer infrastructure and $7.7 million for broadband expansion.

ARPA is unique because it gives federal funds directly to localities. Typically, the federal government distributes money through some sort of middle man, usually a federal or state government agency.

Those middle man agencies have the experience, resources and staff to meet the rigorous reporting requirements that come with spending federal dollars. On the flip side, distributing funds in this way can take a long time, and there’s no guarantee that every locality will receive money. Middle man agencies may select just a few fund recipients, who are often chosen through some kind of application process.

Meanwhile, direct funding ensures that every locality will get some money and can be faster than going through a middle man agency. The money still comes with regulatory overhead, though, which may overwhelm localities.

“Localities, our size especially, do not have the capacity with staff in-house to really monitor some of these projects with federal sub-recipient monitoring, Davis-Bacon Act reporting, all of the things that are going to come with that,” Carter said. “So we have a heightened risk for noncompliance when we go through an audit.”

Under the initial, interim ARPA spending guidelines, almost all of the county’s ARPA money was subject to those strict reporting requirements. The final spending guidelineswhich went into effect April 1changed that.

“One significant change from the interim rule was to allow localities the option to use...up to $10 million for the provision of government services,” said an ARPA report presented to the board at its April 19 meeting. “...Government services are explicitly defined as, among other things, the provision of police, fire and other public safety services.”

Franklin County’s remaining ARPA money$885,000 or sowill still be subject to federal reporting requirements, but spending $10 million of it on payroll allows the county to avoid a lot of the federal regulatory burden.

The county still plans to spend $7.7 million on broadband and $3.2 million on water and sewer infrastructure, but most of that money will technically be local fund payroll savings made possible thanks to ARPA.

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