Jul. 17—Faced with a rare opportunity of using millions of federal dollars allocated in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis Henderson County is seeking a firm to help with the decision making and documentation that lies ahead.
Commissioners Court voted on Tuesday to issue a Request for Qualifications for a company to administer the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program.
"We have been given a funding opportunity that we have never seen," County Judge Wade McKinney said. "We do not have the staff or the expertise to manage the programs as they've been laid out by the federal government.
Sixteen million dollars is being made available to Henderson County through the program.
"That is a lot of money, a lot of reporting and a lot of decisions that have to be made," he said.
McKinney said information on the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 has been coming to the county for about two months. The county has received more than 200 pages of documentation explaining the process of how the funding is to be spent.
County Auditor Ann Marie Lee said the reporting process is so cumbersome, some counties are considering rejecting their portions of the money.
"Even if you hire an outside entity, we have to get them the information and it's going to be overwhelming," she said.
The funding is a two year program. All of the money allotted the county must be encumbered by the end of 2024 with the payout of all projects by Dec. 31, 2026.
"We have two-and-a-half years to spend $16 million," Lee said. "Just starting a project like that requires quite a bit of thought process."
She said another problem will be getting the projects done when the engineers will be in demand from so many other counties.
"If we do move forward with this, we're going to have some assistance from an outside entity," Lee said.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Chuck McHam said to get the most out of what the county has been allotted it must hire a company with broad ranging expertise to manage the program.
McHam said the county might use some of the money for water and sewer projects. He also sees the Senior Citizens Center as needing an upgrade, considering the many ways it is used by the residents of the county.
"There's a lot of things we'll have to look at and we'll have to make the decisions on how we want to spend the money," he said.
The American Rescue Plan Act became law on March 11, putting more then $1.9 trillion toward the recovery, bringing the total since the virus first hit the United States in January 2020 to more than $5 trillion.
The Rescue Plan enables any county or entity with a population of 50,000 or more to receive a direct deposit of the funds. Those with populations below 50,000 can receive funding, but it will have to come from the state.
McKinney said the federal government wants to get the economy up to speed much quicker than after the financial collapse of 2008, which caused local governments to tighten their belts.
"I believe their lessons learned were that because of the austerity that was put in place it really held the economy back from improving for over five years," McKinney said.
Half of the money will be paid to the entities in the beginning. The rest at a later date.
McKinney said Commissioners Court will have to conduct multiple workshops on the program
The U.S. Treasury has issued its "Interim Final Rules," on how the program will be conducted, which are subject to changes. Final guidance is expected sometime after July 16.
The federal government issued a fact sheet which details eligible uses of the funds. Among those are addressing the impact of public health expenditures, negative economic impacts and replacing lost public sector revenue.
Funds may be used to invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure, make necessary investments to improve access to clean drinking water, support vital wastewater and storm water infrastructure, and to expand access to broadband internet.