Aiken County Council committee fails to reach agreement on spending Rescue Act funds

·4 min read

Sep. 18—An ad hoc committee of Aiken County Council has failed to reach an agreement on how funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, should be spent.

The county is scheduled to receive more than $30 million in federal money, and the purpose of the four-member group was to come up with a distribution plan to recommend to County Council as a whole.

But at the end of its third and final meeting on Sept. 16 at the Aiken County Government Center, the ad hoc committee still was divided after multiple motions, multiple votes and lots of discussion.

The differences in philosophy had been apparent since the committee got together for the first time in July.

On one side are County Council and Committee Chairman Gary Bunker and Sandy Haskell, who represents District 5.

They would like the focus of the spending to be on infrastructure improvements and the expansion of the Aiken County detention center.

On the other side are Camille Furgiuele, who represents District 2, and Kelley Mobley, who represents District 4.

They want to use a large portion of the money to provide assistance to firefighters, other first responders and nonprofits.

During County Council's next meeting, which is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Government Center, Bunker expects the issue over what to do with ARPA money to be considered.

On the agenda will be the third reading of an ordinance that would amend the county's 2020-2021 fiscal year budget, which was established in June.

"We will have the opportunity entertain amendments to the budget amendment, and that would be an opportunity for a plan (for the distribution of ARPA money) to be proposed," Bunker said. "We'll see where it goes."

Said Furgiuele: "The nine members (of County Council) will decide what they think is best, and I'm fine with that, I really am."

During the ad hoc committee's Sept. 16 meeting, Bunker presented an ARPA spending plan that was a revision of the proposal he had recommended in August.

Under the more recent version of his plan, the county's ARPA funds would be split in the following manner:

—$763,000 for items included in the county's 2021-2022 fiscal year budget that were designated to be funded by ARPA money.

—$3 million from lost revenue to the county because of COVID-19, based on an ARPA formula, that would be spent to support public safety by providing primarily salary increases and added positions over a four-year period ($750,000 per year).

—$350,000 for the United Way of Aiken County.

—$12 million for the expansion of the detention center.

—$15,077,000 for sewage and wastewater treatment projects.

—$2 million for emergent projects and programs that would be recommended by individual County Council members and voted on by the panel as a whole.

Also during the ad hoc committee's Sept. 16 meeting, Furgiuele made a spending proposal that would allot the ARPA money in the following manner:

—$800,000 for items included in the county's 2021-2022 fiscal year budget that were designated to be funded by ARPA money.

—$5 million to be distributed to firefighters, other first responders and nonprofits by individual County Council members, with each receiving $500,000 for grants in his or her district and $1 million being given to Bunker to allocate.

—$9.7 million for the expansion of the detention center.

—$12 million for sewer and waterline extension projects.

—$3 million to support Aiken Electric Cooperative's effort to establish a broadband network in its largely rural service territory, which includes Aiken County.

—$3 million for a communications system for rural volunteer fire departments.

Originally, Furgiuele had wanted $10 million of the ARPA funds to be be divided among County Council's members ($1 million for each district and $2 million for Bunker) to distribute primarily to nonprofits and small businesses.

But after doing some research, she found that many small businesses already had received money for COVID-19 relief, so she changed that part of her plan.

During the discussion that followed the presentation of Furgiuele's proposal, she offered a further compromise, saying that County Council as a whole, instead of individual members, could decide how to spend the $5 million to assist firefighters, other first responders and nonprofits.

When asked if she would make a motion to amend the county's budget to include a version of her ARPA spending plan during Tuesday's County Council meeting, Furgiuele replied, "Sure."

Said Bunker in response to the same query: "As chairman, I cannot submit a plan."

But that doesn't prevent another member of County Council from making a motion in support of a proposal identical to Bunker's.

"I reckon it will be the two competing plans (under consideration), plus who knows if there is any third plan," Bunker said.

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