Lee County to Receive $32 Million, the Question is How to Spend It

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BY HANNAH LESTER
HLESTER@OPELIKAOBSERVER.COM

The American Rescue Plan has designated recovery funds around the nation to help states recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee County has been allocated $32 million.

“This money is coming directly to all the local governments, cities, counties, it’s mainly done based on population,” said Lee County Administrator Roger Rendleman. “There’s over a billion dollars that are coming to the Alabama counties.”

Lee County received the first portion of the $32 million in the middle of May. The second half will come no more than 18 months later, Rendleman said.

“There are specific things in the act that it says it has to be addressing,” he said.

In other words, the money cannot be spent however the county wants, there are stipulations in the act, but it is still broad.

“It has to be tied somehow, someway to the coronavirus,” Rendleman said.

It can be used for coronavirus response — which Rendleman said the county still needs to do.

But there are other options for the money: grant programs, for one. Investing in infrastructure like water, sewer and broadband for another.

The executive summary from the National Association of Counties said that the uses of the money include: supporting public health response, addressing negative economic impacts, replacing public sector revenue loss, premium pay for essential workers and water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

The public health response funding areas include vaccine programs, communication related to COVID-19, purchasing PPE, providing medical leave to public employees, ‘related to COVID-19 compliance’ and more.

For the economic section for households, examples included by the National Association of Counties include food, rent and mortgage assistance, ‘burial assistance,’ ‘counseling and legal aid to prevent eviction or homelessness,’ ‘home repairs and weatherization’ and more.

For the public sector, this could include rehiring employees. For communities at large, the funds could be used to help the homeless population, provide early learning aide, help provide childcare and more.

“But the [Lee County] commission is going to have to kind of make a decision on what areas they want to focus on,” Rendleman said. 

Some cities already passed resolutions for how the money will be designated.

“We’re already getting questions,” Rendleman said. “It’s going to be one of those things where they’re basically going to have to compile this list and make what is their determination as priorities.”

The state of Alabama does not allow the county to provide money to private individuals and businesses, as written in the state constitution.

However, Rendleman said there is a discussion on whether this money can be allocated to private individuals and businesses since it is being given by the federal government.

“If that’s what is determined, the county’s going to have to make sure it does it absolutely right,” he said.

Should the county give money to local businesses and it is later determined that was not allowed under the American Rescue Plan, the county will have to take all that money from the general fund. Then, the money would no longer be coming from a federal source, but a state source, which is not allowed, Rendleman said.

One way the county can cover their bases is to have help from an outside agency.

During the Lee County Commission last Monday night, two county employees, Neil Cyriac and Wendy Swann, presented a presentation on The ACCA “Investing in Alabama Counties” program.

“[The program] will help alleviate the compliance, intergovernmental, technical and educational challenges presented to participating counties in best utilizing their federal funding under the American Rescue Plan Act,” according to information provided by the county.

The ACCA IAC plan would be able to provide administration, planning, management, completion and support to the county, Swann told the commission.

The county would need to pay 6% on the first 7 million of the 32 million, Swann said, and 4% on the rest of the funds.

“They are going to have a dedicated staff that is going to address all of these,” she said. “They are going to be able to address multiple topics. So, if you wanna do the infrastructure and if you want to do the community aide projects, then they are going to be able to do all of those projects.”

The other option the county has is to pay staff members to handle the money management full time for the next five years, Rendleman said.

“If we did it in house, we would have to create all of that from scratch,” Swann said. “… I do not think we are experienced enough with multiple projects of this magnitude because it would be a lot of projects.”

Should the county choose to use the money on only one project, such as infrastructure, Swann said she thinks the county can do that in house.

“What we would like for y’all to do is to take that information that we have given in your packets that’s more specific and look at it and decide which direction y’all really want to go,” she said. “If y’all want to go the multiple projects, to benefit a lot, then I really think the IAC is the way to go. But of course, that is obviously up to y’all. If you want to just focus on one, like infrastructure we could potentially pull that off.”

One of the benefits of using the ACCA program, Rendleman said, is having a group to back up any decision made, should the federal government try to say the money wasn’t spent correctly.

However, the county will still need to hire an employee on the local level to deal with this, Swann said.

The commission did not vote on whether to join the program. They have until the next meeting on July 12 to decide.

And there is even more time to decide how the money will be spent. The money must be obligated by the end of year 2024. The money must be spent, and all projects finished by end of year 2026.

Should the money be used for premium pay, it can be paid retroactively through January 27, 2020, according to the National Association of Counties summary.

“What I think a lot of people aren’t really realizing, this package that was passed, this recovery act is massive,” Rendleman said during commission. “There is a billion dollars coming to Alabama counties alone. And the areas they’re covering is very wide.”

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