The money hasn’t arrived yet, but like millions of other Americans with an eye on their banking app, Athens-Clarke County officials are already thinking about how to spend more than $60 million the local government will receive from the Biden administration through the American Rescue Plan signed in March.
The windfall will include $57 million ACC can spend on COVID relief, hazard pay for county employees who worked through the pandemic, replacing revenue from the economic downturn and on water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. That money will come in two installments—one this May and another next year—and must be spent before the end of 2024.
In addition, $2.5 million is coming for affordable housing construction through the federal HOME program, along with $7.2 million for Athens Transit. Mayor Kelly Girtz said he will propose in his 2022 budget this week spending $3 million to restore Athens Transit routes that were cut during the pandemic and keep the system fare-free for another year.
Besides the dollars coming directly to ACC, Athens residents, nonprofits and businesses will have access to a variety of other funds, including emergency assistance for renters, homeowners, restaurant owners, mental health care providers and child care providers. The act also temporarily expands nutrition programs like SNAP (food stamps/EBT) and WIC (for women, infants and children).
While the money is welcome, it also creates a conundrum for local officials who must decide how to spend the local share without knowing what other funds might become available, as well as how to get the word out to individuals and organizations. “A real challenge for us is, there’s not going to be a day certain when this all comes out,” ACC Manager Blaine Williams told commissioners at an Apr. 15 work session. “It’s probably going to be staggered. You don’t want to spend all your funds on one pot when another one’s coming down the pike.”
Formal guidance from the Treasury Department is expected in mid-May, according to Girtz. When that comes, though, local officials want to be ready to hit the ground running. “I think we should come up with immediate plans for immediate needs so when that money lands on our lap we are ready to go,” Commissioner Melissa Link said.
One of those needs, commissioners agreed, is ramping up COVID-19 vaccinations. Link is among those who have expressed frustration that some Athens residents are having a difficult time scheduling appointments in town. With new variants of the virus spreading, public health experts say the nation is in a race to achieve herd immunity before a new version pops up that current vaccines are ineffective against.
Another high priority for several commissioners is rental assistance. The CDC has placed a moratorium on evictions through June, but some people are still being evicted because they can’t navigate the system well enough to fill out the proper paperwork, according to Commissioner Tim Denson. Even those who can take advantage of the moratorium will owe back rent when it expires. Denson wants to put into place something like the Gwinnett County Magistrate Court’s Project RESET, an eviction prevention program funded by the CARES Act, last year’s round of coronavirus relief.
After some pushback from Commissioners Allison Wright and Mike Hamby, Commissioner Jesse Houle called for a vote on a Project RESET-style program in May. “People are being evicted every day right now, and we could be doing something about it,” Houle said. “We complain about homelessness all the time. Everyone on this body makes all this noise about homelessness. And people are homeless because they get evicted, and we could be preventing that, and we’re not. We need to stop dragging our feet.”
One question about such programs, though, is how they could be sustained once the federal funding runs out. Link and Commissioner Ovita Thornton said they want to invest in programs that will alleviate poverty and ultimately bring more tax revenue into county coffers.
Commissioner Patrick Davenport said his constituents want to address homelessness, but he also pointed to traditional infrastructure projects like sidewalks and sewer lines. Once built they require maintenance, but don’t have the operating costs of social programs. “If we fix what’s broken now… we put less strain on our budget,” Davenport said.
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