Counties discuss variety of ways to use American Rescue Plan funding

By Josh Curtis
AAC Government Relations Director

Someone who has been around county government for over 40 years told me that Arkansas counties are in the best financial shape they have ever been in. The primary reason is the influx of dollars coming from the federal government through the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan (ARP). As with most federal money, there are strings attached. What can you spend it on? How do you document the expenditures? Who can you give it to? Does this project make sense? Should we look long-term, or should we spend it now? How long do we have to spend it? These are just a few questions that have been emailed to The AAC has contracted with Lindsey Holman of Holman Strategies, LLC to help answer these questions and provide the best guidance for counties.

Everyone should understand that this is one-time money and most likely will never be available again. In this article, I will provide examples of what counties are doing with the funds. Some are still developing processes related to how requests will be allowed to be submitted. Some have spent some of their money, still others are eyeing big projects.

One place to start is to calculate lost revenue. Revenue replacement funds can be spent on any normal course of county business.

“Greene County has earmarked $1.8 million as lost revenue, which goes into County General,” said Greene County Judge Rusty McMillon. “I hope to use much of that for bridge replacements, overlays, and even some new paving. I have assembled a few members of the community to help with advising on how the remainder of this money could be used. From our initial meeting, they have suggested use of the funds for roads, broad band infrastructure to undeserved areas of the community, assisting municipal water and rural water districts with improvements, and grants to non-profits and small businesses.”

The Saline County Quorum Court tasked County Judge Jeff Arey and his staff with developing a process to openly and fairly evaluate ideas, proposals and requests that may be made for the ARP funds that the county has received. As a result, Saline County has developed a Request for Proposal (RFP) application to provide members of the public and potential respondents with the criteria for what Saline County will consider for projects and the process for having them considered. The goal is to provide a transparent, thorough process, to ensure public confidence that the taxpayer funds provided to Saline County are spent in an accountable manner. The county is not asking for formal proposals until the Treasury Department’s final rule is released. Once the ruling is released, Saline County will make any necessary changes to the RFP, and then begin accepting proposals. Here are a few of the guiding principles for the ARP Funds that Judge Arey mentioned: ARP funds should be utilized in such a way to pursue large, transformative projects of $1 million or more; projects should positively impact all of, or as much as possible of, Saline County; projects should not create continuous financial obligations for future Quorum Courts, to the greatest extent possible; and proposals that include partnerships with other local governments, state governments or political subdivisions, or public-private partnerships that maximize the potential for a project are preferred.

Craighead County Judge Marvin Day said he is listening to the ideas of various community groups and watching what other counties are considering.

“We consider this funding to be monumental and are making sure that what we do with it will be monumental as well. We are seeking a project or projects that are consistent with our communities’ strategic plans for the future,” he said.

Baxter County plans to build a new county health department building. It’s a goal Baxter County Judge Mickey Pendergrass has had since he has been office. He said the county needs the larger building and could possibly build it with the ARP funds, if approved.

Baxter County also is pursuing possible isolation unit(s) for the jail, and plans to use the money for additional broadband and premium pay for employees.

Chicot County Judge Mack Ball said his county is discussing possible uses for the funds in the local hospital “and ways to expand broadband in the county, hoping all of this will increase economic development for Chicot County.”

Conway County gave $5,200 to all full-time employees and $2,600 to all part-time employees who worked last year during the pandemic. Conway County Judge Jimmy Hart said he is proud that his Quorum Court provided premium pay for all employees of the county.

These are only a few examples of what counties are doing and what they are thinking about for the future. We are still awaiting the official final rule to be published by the U.S. Department of Treasury, and it may look a lot different than the current interim final rule. There also may be additional legislation from Congress that could give more flexibility to counties spending this money. An amendment was proposed to the most recent Senate infrastructure bill that would allow counties to spend ARP money on conventional infrastructure such as roads and bridges. We recommend not being in a hurry spending this money if you don’t have to be

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