Spending of covid relief to be focus of new commissioners' board

Nov. 5—Westmoreland commissioners voted last week to allocate $270,000 from the county's pool of American Rescue Plan funds, and, as a result, about half of the $105 million pool of covid-relief cash received from the federal government in 2021 has been spent.

Commissioners will have nearly $53 million to allocate by the end of 2024, requiring decisions on future allocations to be made by the next board that takes office in January. All ARP funds must be spent before the start of 2027.

Three incumbents, Republicans Sean Kertes and Doug Chew and Democrat Ted Kopas, are seeking new terms in office. Democrat Lisa Gephart is trying to oust one of the incumbents and help her party reclaim the board majority it lost in 2020. The top three vote-getters in next week's election will win seats on the new board.

Most of the ARP funds were allocated over the past 18 months by Kertes and Chew. Kopas was appointed to the board in August to replace Commissioner Gina Cerilli Thrasher, who resigned after she was appointed as a state Workers' Compensation Appeals Court judge.

All four candidates said the spending of American Rescue Plan funds will be a key issue to address in 2024.

"The (American Rescue Plan money) has to be used to help our most vulnerable in society, and I think we have done that," Chew said. "But also we now have the responsibility for a better future."

According to the county's Department of Finance, more than $52 million has been allocated for a variety of purposes, including a $7 million construction project to rebuild an underground parking garage and a new courtyard at the courthouse, technology upgrades, pay hikes and bonuses to workers and filling revenue gaps in the county's $420 million budget.

Commissioners last year allocated more than $8 million of the funds to cover routine costs that in past years was paid for from the county's general fund budget.

ARP funds were also earmarked for larger-scale projects including grants to human service agencies, a $10 million program to remove blighted buildings throughout the county; $9 million to pay for water and sewer upgrades in local municipalities; $4.4 million to bolster the Westmoreland County Food Bank; $1.7 million to install broadband in underserved communities; and a $949,000 investment in a job and education program in the county's school districts.

Some community leaders have advocated for additional spending for social service programs such as mental health treatment, food security and to assist homeless residents.

The candidates said housing issues should be a focus for the remaining covid-relief funds.

Kertes advocates using ARP funds to create and pay for a program to help first-time homebuyers make down payments. He also said the remaining covid-relief funds should be earmarked for capital improvements to what he said was the county's neglected assets that include repairs at the courthouse, jail, Westmoreland Manor and other government facilities.

Additional funding for human services might also be provided.

"I will defer to our human services director to see what is working or not when determining how we use this money for human services. With our new department we started from ground zero to work our way back. I view this as a fresh start," Kertes said.

Chew said he wants to see the remaining American Rescue Plan funds focus on more community projects rather than to fill budgetary gaps and echoed Kertes' call to use the money to improve housing in the county.

"There are a lot of possibilities. One of which is broadband. I have always said that what work we do in broadband in Westmoreland County has to be coordinated with other programs. This money is eligible for broadband funding," Chew said.

Chew and Kertes last year pledged about $18 million of the funds for proposals from three private contractors to install internet cable in underserved communities. Those funds have not been officially allocated and are part of the $53 million still in the bank that can be spent in the future.

The county's covid funds would serve as a local match if any of those broadband projects win state approval. It is unclear if any will receive state funding within the next year.

With those funds potentially still in play for other uses the new commissioners' board will have a relatively short time period, a year, to make final allocations for as much as $53 million.

Similar issues

Other counties are in the same boat.

Allegheny County received $380 million in ARP funds. According to data made public on Allegheny County's website, to date, it has spent more than $191 million. Of those allocations, about $29 million was used to cover the county's operating deficit, another $10 million to upgrade emergency services radios; nearly $21 million for economic development projects and more than $21 million for tourism assistance.

Westmoreland County does not post updates of ARP allocations and spending.

Westmoreland Republicans defended their use of the covid funds and said they want to continue to use the money for community improvements.

Kopas disagreed with the how the first half of the funds were allocated.

"I've been disappointed with how a vast majority of the money has been spent," Kopas said. "The spirit of this was to be much more impactful and I've seen very little impact. What is really befuddling is the county is in a very tenuous financial situation right now and we had so much money to use when the county is basically broke."

Kopas said the remaining covid funds should be used to improve the county's housing stock, rehabilitate older structures and build new homes. He warned against using what's left of the funds to cover routine government costs.

Gephart called for targeting community needs for the remaining funds.

"We need to invest in social services, mental health and have programs to help individuals in vulnerable communities," Gephart said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich by email at rcholodofsky@triblive.com or via Twitter .