Douglas County staff: Internal ARPA-funded projects will go a long way toward helping county recover financially
photo by: Rochelle Valverde
With the allocation of another round of COVID-19 relief funding behind them, Douglas County staffers say the portion set aside for internal projects will go a long way toward easing the county’s finances.
The Douglas County Commission spent weeks this summer discussing the specifics of a number of requests for the county’s remaining $21 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, the majority of the nearly $24 million allocated to the county that wasn’t already earmarked. About $15 million went toward 14 external projects for organizations like nonprofits. That process involved the Douglas County Commission paring down a list of more than 100 requests.
But weeks before signing off on the final list of external allocations, the commission approved setting aside about a third of the county’s ARPA funding for internal projects recommended by county staff without talking through them in detail. That first chunk of funds amounted to a little over $7 million for 23 internal county requests and goes toward such projects as the Douglas County District Court’s future self-help center and a reimbursement for expenses related to a remodel of the Douglas County Elections Office.
But the lack of public discussion about those internal requests didn’t mean the process for evaluating them was any less thorough, Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky told the Journal-World Wednesday. Though only a handful of internal requests weren’t granted funding (six out of 29), they all were subject to the same requirements.
“It’s a similar process that we used for the external ARPA process, but a little more abbreviated,” Plinsky said. “… They filled out the same applications, except for the financials that we already have centrally.”
They were also evaluated by staff, Plinsky said, for elements like feasibility and appropriateness. Given that ARPA funds are one-time aid dollars, Plinsky said avoiding projects that asked for ongoing funding support was a priority for both internal and external requests.
“That was our ‘neon flashing lights with the marquee lights around it’ methodology for ARPA was these were one-time dollars, and we want to use it to make an investment that we don’t have to worry about sustaining once those funds are gone,” Plinsky said. “When I try to think big-picture about it, some of this was catch-up and (some was) future planning.”
Looking at the list of internal projects, it’s plain which requests clearly belong in either group. Projects that look ahead, for example, include the nearly $2.8 million set aside for various expenses related to the county’s still-developing Open Space Plan or the $650,000 doled out for relocating the Douglas County Treasurer’s Office.
But Plinsky said the internal projects, on the whole, aren’t what she’d call “adventurous.” For the most part, they shore up costs that otherwise may have been harder to budget for in a more typical year — like $373,000 to replace an emergency fire apparatus for Consolidated Fire District No. 1, or $50,000 to fund equipment replacements for the District Court.
Plinsky said any boldness was instead in the external requests.
“I think we tried to save that for the external projects, like how can we move the needle on supportive housing in this community?” Plinsky said. “How can we advance that? Let’s be purposeful, bold and really try to move our community forward.”
The influx of federal funding during the COVID pandemic dwarfs what the county might receive any other year on average, Plinsky said; managing millions that have to be spent within a handful of years has been much different from the usual federal stimulus the county might receive in an average year. Plinsky said that typically was closer to $400,000 maximum, which has to be spent in a much shorter time frame.
There have also been some key differences in how this round of federal pandemic aid has been spent compared with the previous Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. CARES funding was stricter by default and more limited in the expenses it could cover — like personal protective equipment that kept first responders functioning safely early on or COVID test kits.
Brooke Sauer, Douglas County’s finance coordinator, agreed. Sauer said the CARES Act funding represented a much more significant amount of investment in the county’s public health infrastructure, evidenced by funding granted to LMH Health for things like establishing a COVID unit. The ARPA funding process, Sauer said, provided a chance to shift focus elsewhere since public health needs were met earlier on.
“This really is different, but it is really to help us recover,” Plinsky said. “Recovery takes longer. I think it’s really appropriate that we used a lot of this to support our underlying emergency response system, because that was Unified Command. … It was on that backbone of emergency management and emergency communications, too.”
The full list of funding allocated by county department is as follows:
• $1,718,480 to county emergency management and communications for items like personal protective equipment and enhanced remote radios for Douglas County Sheriff’s Office vehicles.
• $443,000 to Consolidated Fire District #1 for an emergency fire apparatus replacement and installation of a city/county fiber line.
• $741,667 to the Douglas County Clerk’s Office for items such as the Elections Office remodel.
• $117,650 to Criminal Justice Services to replace cameras.
• $473,291 to the Douglas County District Court, mainly toward the future Self-Help Center.
• $2,780,000 toward the county’s Open Space Plan.
• $650,000 toward relocating the Douglas County Treasurer’s Office.
• $138,350 for general countywide COVID expenditures.