Officials considering how to spend shares of federal coronavirus relief funds

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Charles Boothe, Bluefield Daily Telegraph, W.Va.
·5 min read
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Mar. 14—PRINCETON — With a total of $11.4 million from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan coming to Mercer County and more to its cities and towns, officials are now considering exactly what the money can be spent on.

Sen. Joe Manchin revealed some of the details last week, saying the City of Bluefield will also receive more than $4 million, Princeton $2.36 million and Bramwell $140,000.

During a Zoom call with municipal leaders around the state, he said this is the first time federal funding has been sent directly to localities, with a total of $677 million going to local governments: $176 million for larger metropolitan cities, $153 million for smaller cities and $348 million for 55 counties.

The money will be received over a period of two years, he said, half this year and half next, with this year's allocation expected to be received in the next 30 to 60 days.

Manchin said the federal Treasury Department is working on the final guidelines on how the money can be spent.

"What you cannot do is use it for your pension plan, your rainy day account ... you cannot cut tax revenue and use it to backfill that," he said. "You can't use federal dollars when you have cut your revenue stream. They are adamant about that."

Funds can be used, though, for any pandemic expenses and loss reimbursements as well as infrastructure projects for water, sewer and broadband to help communities.

Manchin also said this a good opportunity for localities to band together to get regional projects done and possibly involve the state as well because the state is receiving $1.25 billion.

What Manchin said was good news to Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett, who was part of the virtual meeting with Manchin.

"We did not get left out this time," Puckett said of counties getting relatively little of the CARES Act last year. "We are excited."

Pooling financial resources is particularly attractive.

"The best part is working together on cross-collaborations on projects, looking across county lines," he said. "These projects can move faster with a lot of coordination."

Puckett said the county is the "hub" of working with communities, and county commissioners will start discussions on how the $11.4 million will be spent.

Several possibilities come to mind, he said, including tourism, which has been hit hard (other than the ATV trails), dilapidated structures and especially broadband.

"We don't have it," he said of broadband in the county's rural areas. "We don't exist on a map. It is essential and affects everything. It is the highway of the 21st Century."

Water and sewer projects will also be examined around the county, he said, with an emphasis on benefiting the most people possible with the money on hand.

"You've got to make sure you build it to have maximum benefit," he said.

Puckett, who was recently appointed to the National Association of Counties (NACo) Board of Directors and on that organization's Rural Action Caucus, said he is also happy counties are finally given a chance to show they can get things done.

"We are closest to communities," he said of commissioners. "We know what is needed and how to get it done. We just have not had the resources to do it."

Sixty percent of communities in the country are rural, he said, and this funding helps those communities have a voice around and demonstrate their ability be responsible with funding and accomplish badly needed projects.

"We are extremely appreciative of this," Puckett told Manchin.

Bluefield City Manager Dane Rideout said city leaders are also excited about the funding.

"Whatever we do with the money depends on us figuring out what we can and can't do," he said, adding that it will be treated like the city deals with foundation money and leveraged as much as possible for projects.

Rideout said the city does not need any basic infrastructure work.

"We are in extremely good shape when it comes to broadband," he said of the city's broadband "gigabit city" designation that features high internet capacity. "The water company does a great job and the Sanitary Board is the best in the state."

Rideout said one project that is a priority is stormwater drainage.

"That is my number one infrastructure project in the city," he said, adding that flooding is an issue in the city because of a drainage project that needs to be completed.

"We are excited about this," he said of the funding.

Manchin said specific criteria will determine what can and cannot be done and random audits will be conducted by the federal government to make sure the money is spent appropriately.

The funding must be spent by 2024, he added, so municipalities have some leeway to get more long-term projects done.

Although required federal random audits will be conducted, Manchin told the municipal representatives he trusts them to do what needs to be done.

"My experience serving as Governor helped me understand the needs of our small communities, and I wanted to make sure that they were able to get resources they need to address their most pressing issues," he said. "Whether it's water, sewer, broadband, police, fire departments or getting every West Virginian vaccinated, this funding I voted for in the American Rescue Plan is going to help our cities and counties tremendously."

Manchin said he is confident they will pick projects that "really make a difference and people can appreciate."

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com