Valley counties exploring how American Rescue Plan Act funds can help communities

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Aug. 4—County commissioners across the region received dozens of applications for a part of millions in federal aid made available during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and many are still finding ways to allocate the funding.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), signed into law by President Joe Biden in early 2021, offered a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus meant to speed the country's economic recovery and aid businesses and organizations reeling from the pandemic. Of the federal total, $6.15 billion was allocated to Pennsylvania.

Commissioners in Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties are finding ways to use the money to have the widest reach. The funding, totaling approximately $33.8 million, came with numerous stipulations on how and where that money may be spent.

In Union County, commissioners received more than 60 applications for a slice of $9 million by the May 31 deadline.

"Our understanding of ARPA was to assist communities and counties to recover from COVID," said Union County Commissioner Stacy Richards. "Based on that, we (commissioners) didn't really know what all the needs were."

In March, Union County made public an application to nonprofits, public utilities and municipalities asking what they might need funds for.

Richards said they are reviewing applications to hopefully disperse a significant amount of their portion of ARPA money to those requests.

Richards said commissioners looked internally to determine the special needs county government departments have.

"We are considering the applications as well as some forward investment the county might make in its operations that would serve the entire county," said Richards. "So far we have not allocated funding but we are in the process."

Commissioners in Union County met in recent weeks to discuss the funds. They have until December 2024 to make final decisions.

"But we know the needs are there now," Richards said.

Richards said the intention of commissioners is to distribute those monies by fall and noted a large portion of the Pennsylvania state budget relates to ARPA.

"The state Legislature and the governor enacted the state budget which has hundreds of millions of ARPA funds the state received that can be allocated down to the communities," Richards said. "We're just trying to understand the flow of money and where the needs are."

Snyder County

Commissioner Adam Ewig said Snyder County previously took similar approaches to Union County to disperse funding to nonprofits and other government entities that serve the county.

"We did that with CARES money during the first round of COVID dollars," said Ewig.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) was signed into law on March 27, 2020, by former president Donald Trump.

Snyder County received approximately $7.8 million in funding from ARPA.

Ewig said some of the funds went to premium and incentive pay to retain employees in Snyder County. That incentive pay did not apply to elected officials.

Money also was allocated to make long-awaited updates to the county's courthouse.

Ewig said a priority for commissioners has been making upgrades to the building's heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system to improve air quality.

"Our system is from like the 1970s. That's another project," said Ewig.

Snyder County is working with an engineering firm to come up with designs to retool and rehab what can be done to the building, according to Ewig.

"That is where we are so far," Ewig said.

Other projects are on commissioners' priority list but so far only HVAC system upgrades have received the go-ahead.

Ewig hinted the courthouse project will not be a quick project.

"We're kind of taking our time with it," he said.

Recreational options and upgrades at Faylor Lake also will receive a portion of ARPA money.

"Accessibility as well as facilities and better boating access," Ewig added.

Ewig said ARPA funds were taken as lost revenue for Snyder County.

"That kind of freed up how it can be spent without all the stipulations," said Ewig.

Northumberland County

According to Commissioner Sam Schiccatano, Northumberland County is taking approaches similar to Union and Snyder counties.

Northumberland County received approximately $17 million. Schiccatano said the county already is giving money to municipalities through ARPA.

"We already have met with our 37 municipalities and people who qualified for programs," he said.

Schiccatano said the county opened up ARPA funding to municipalities first and approximately $5 million has been dispersed to municipalities for sewer, water, runoff and storm management projects.

Northumberland County hired a company based out of Harrisburg to help the county with the application processes.

According to Schiccatano, the county had to determine eligible projects for funding. Municipalities were required to put up half-matching funds to receive additional funding.

Schiccatano said the county plans to erect a new broadband tower in the southern portion of the county.

Some of the money the county plans to use is $3 to $4 million for tower issues, he said.

Commissioners soon will be deciding the fate of the remainder of ARPA funding and Schiccatano said they are looking at projects to be done in county-owned buildings and are receiving estimates, including for its HVAC system.

"Some things need to be done," Schiccatano said. "Most of the systems on the roof are on their last legs. Those are things we are looking at and taking estimates."

He said if those projects qualify for funding it could save taxpayer dollars in the long run.