From sewers to golf courses: Cities are looking green with new federal Covid aid dollars


Duluth, Minnesota, is hiring a social worker to help people with addictions and mental health problems.

Pueblo, Colorado began paying homeless residents to clean the city’s streets.

Palm Beach Gardens, Florida – in Palm Beach County, home to 160 golf courses – is building a new golf course.

A rendering shows the golf course’s clubhouse and two-story driving range being built by the City of Palm Beach Gardens. The city is using approximately $ 2 million in Covid aid from the American Rescue Plan Act to help build the $ 16.8 million course. (City of Palm Beach Gardens)

It’s one of the thousands of ways cities and counties began to spend the first tranche of Covid bailout funds from the U.S. bailout bill passed by Congress in March.

This economic rescue package provides cities and counties with $ 130 billion – with few restrictions on how the money can be spent. For many it was the first economic relief directly from the federal government.

States received $ 195 billion from ARPA. They had received other stimulus funding in previous aid packages, including the CARES bill last year.

The infusion of dollars into cities and counties is set to help residents and businesses hit by the Covid-19 pandemic invest in long-term projects or complement households hit by a drop in tax revenues due to closure restrictions and economic slowdowns.

Half of the money was made available in May, the rest will be available next year. The localities have until 2026 to spend it.

The money cannot be used to cut taxes, add to Rainy Day funds, pay for legal settlements, or support pension funds.

Otherwise, local governments can spend the money practically however they want. Many cities, such as Buffalo, New York, and Houston, initially classify large portions of the allocation as “revenue replacement”. This gives them the greatest flexibility, according to a report from the Brookings Institution.

Many jurisdictions, including West Palm Beach, Florida and Livonia, Minnesota, have allocated ARPA funds for employee bonuses.

Chautauqua County, New York approved nearly $ 95,000 in handguns and bulletproof vests for his sheriff’s office. The county, which averages 120 inches of snow annually, also approved $ 480,000 for two snow plows / dump trucks and $ 810,000 for a snow thrower.

Dubois County, Indiana is using $ 350,000 of its $ 8 million to add campgrounds, a bathroom, and other improvements to a county park.

ARPA – a $ 1.9 trillion package that included funding for Covid tests, unemployment benefits, child tax credits, and a host of other programs in addition to community aid – was a top priority for President Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress after taking control of Washington earlier this year. The bill was passed without the support of Republicans, who argued that previous Covid remedies had not been fully spent and their effects were still being realized.

The echo of that argument still reverberates on Capitol Hill as Republicans battle the Democrats over plans to increase spending on social programs like Medicare and Medicaid and climate change.

Unlike previous federal fiscal relief efforts – including the CARES Act – ARPA provides assistance to thousands of cities and counties. Cities with more than 50,000 residents receive money based on population size, poverty rates, and overpopulation. Smaller cities receive money based on the number of inhabitants.

The CARES bill has funded 160 of the nation’s 1,300 largest counties, but ARPA funds go to all over 3,000 counties, said Eryn Hurley, assistant director of government affairs for the National Association of Counties. “This money is very important,” she said, noting how the pandemic and economic downturn have cost the counties billions in revenue. “The counties are working hard to get these funds into place for their communities and residents as quickly as possible,” she said.

Alan Berube, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution tracking the aid funds, said this was the first new massive city and county grant funding program in nearly 50 years with such flexible spending requirements. Most local governments, he added, are still trying to figure out how to spend the money.

“You need to use this money to address the impact of the pandemic or an underlying disease exacerbated by the pandemic in the community,” Berube said.

Some cities, including Seattle and Austin, Texas, are using the money to build affordable housing and programs to cope with the rise in the homeless.

Berube said the Treasury Department may question whether Palm Beach Gardens, a largely upscale town north of West Palm Beach, is using $ 2 million of its $ 2.9 million ARPA money to build a golf course can.

“This is a very aggressive interpretation of the regulation,” he said.

Palm Beach Gardens officials defend the expense as “an investment in our community.” Candice Temple, a city spokeswoman, said the money will be used to develop 115 acres of land, which will include a par-3 golf course, clubhouse and bike lanes. The total cost of the project is $ 16.8 million, with the remainder coming from a bond loan. The city plans to hire seven employees for the course.

Pueblo, Colorado Mayor Nicholas Gradisar said his city was grateful for the money, although sales tax revenue rose 3% last year and 30% in 2021.

“All in all, it could have been a lot worse,” said Gradisar.

His city used a portion of its ARPA funding to provide its employees with a $ 500 incentive payment for the vaccination. The money helped improve the vaccination rate from 43% in early August to about 66% when the program ended on September 15.

“Of course we were happy that more people registered, but we still have a way to go,” said Gradisar.

Pueblo will also use some of the ARPA funds to tackle homelessness and poor childcare, he said.

The city invested $ 500,000 in a summer reading program that rewards kids with $ 100 for getting their chores done, and targeted $ 376,000 for mental health specialists who work with the police. It also pays people in a homeless shelter to clean the city streets. So far, Pueblo has pledged $ 2.3 million of the $ 18 million in ARPA funds it expects to receive.

Martin Brown, a program manager for the National League of Cities, said city officials contacted the organization to ask how they can use the money. “For the $ 65 billion in revenue, there are probably 65 billion ways to spend it,” he said.

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