Fayetteville council talks proposals for pandemic relief money

FAYETTEVILLE — The City Council got a rundown Saturday on ways to potentially spend most of its American Rescue Plan money.

All eight council members attended a workshop at City Hall in which administrators outlined options on expenditures and answered any questions. The meeting lasted about 2½ hours.

The city has received just over $17.9 million in American Rescue Plan money. The US Treasury Department outlined four ways in which cities can use the money: public health expenditures and addressing economic development impacts from the pandemic; replacing lost tax revenue; premium pay for essential workers; and water and sewer and broadband infrastructure. Cities have to oblige all of their money by the end of 2024 and spend it by the end of 2026. Otherwise, they must return it.

Most of Saturday’s discussion centered around the amounts the city could provide to nonprofits for projects or financial assistance. The City Council voted 7-1 in April to receive a “standard allowance” from the federal government, meaning it can put $10 million toward general government expenses and infrastructure and the rest, about $7.9 million, toward projects and relief. Teresa Turk cast the sole no vote at the time, saying she felt the move strayed from the act’s original intent.

The city has already spent about $2.3 million of the money on employee service appreciation pay, a Lake Fayetteville water quality study, a vaccine incentive program and contributing to the Northwest Arkansas Council’s campaign to get people vaccinated.

That leaves nearly $8 million that can be spent on government services and about $7.6 million on projects or financial assistance. The city received about $15.7 million in infrastructure requests from department heads and about $32.4 million in requests from nonprofits, organizations or local government officials for projects or financial assistance.

Of the $7.6 million available for projects, 34 nonprofits applied for nearly $20.4 million worth of requests. Steven Dotson, internal auditor with the city, and Paul Becker, the city’s chief financial officer, presented a recommended list to the council to provide about $4.3 million to 11 organizations.

Becker said those requests will require regular reporting to the federal government and the city will be held responsible for the use of the money. He said the city has a staff capable of overseeing 10 or so of the grants, but said he plans to ask the council soon for an additional full-time person to help handle the load.

The Watershed Conservation Resource Center would get the most among the nonprofits at more than $1.4 million. The center would use the money to purchase land along the West Fork of the White River to protect water quality and restore riparian and wetland habitat.

The Illinois River Watershed Partnership would get the second most of the nonprofits at $893,272. The partnership would use the money for stormwater projects in the city.

The Excellerate Foundation would receive the third highest amount of 11 nonprofits with $742,223 over five years. The foundation would use the money for its Upskill NWA program, a workforce training initiative focused on getting lower-income households into higher wages with a partner employer. The request with Fayetteville would focus on health care jobs.

The city received 13 applications for financial assistance totaling $646,480. Dotson and Becker recommended fulfilling all of the requests.

St. James Missionary Baptist Church would receive the most money with $150,510. The Fayetteville Housing Authority’s nonprofit, FHA Development, Inc., would get $104,936. The Fayetteville Public Library Foundation would receive the third most money of the 13 with $89,016.

Becker said the assistance money is meant to help organizations recover from financial impact during the pandemic. Applicants did not have to present a plan on how they intend to use the money, and the reporting requirements to the federal government are far less strict than those for the grant recipients, he said.

Dotson and Becker also recommended the council provide more than $1.2 million to the Fayetteville Public Library to aid in staff and equipment costs for its culinary workforce development program.

As a separate measure, $757,917 would go to Central EMS to help replace ambulances, buy equipment and provide premium pay to personnel. Central EMS made a regionwide request of $2.2 million for assistance, and local governments across Washington County plan to each provide a portion based on population, Fire Chief Brad Hardin said.

The city also has a pair of requests outside the realm of government services or infrastructure. Dotson and Becker recommended including $500,000 for a child care voucher program and $100,000 to expand Headstart education facilities through Fayetteville Public Schools.

Becker said the council can narrow down the nearly $8 million available for government services and infrastructure at a later date. Taking the “standard allowance” enables the city to put the money in the general fund as revenue reimbursement and can be used for a variety of purposes, such as drainage improvements, sidewalk construction, energy efficiency projects or park development, he said.

Turk said she felt the council’s vote in April to take the “standard allowance” put the city in a box because more money could have gone towards nonprofits for relief and projects. Becker estimated in April the city lost about $6.9 million in revenue because of the pandemic.

For now, Dotson and Becker recommended putting most of the government services money towards water and sewer projects and parks and recreation, particularly building out an activity hub at the northwest corner of Walker Park where the skateboard facilities are.

The council agreed to read over applications using a scoring matrix provided by Dotson and Becker and provide staff feedback on any recommended changes. Council Member Sloan Scroggin also asked administrators to create a page on the city’s Speak Up website to solicit feedback on the spending proposals from residents. Chief of Staff Susan Norton said the Speak Up page could potentially be up by Tuesday.

The council agreed to schedule a meeting for 5:30 pm Sept. 7 to go over the list again. It will eventually go to the council for a vote during a regular meeting.

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