City developing plans to use nearly $30 million in COVID relief funds

The city is receiving millions in COVID relief funds and staff is working on the plan for how to use those funds.

The city is receiving $19.47 million directly from the American Rescue Plan Act and received $10.3 million in CARES Act funds.

Both sets of funds come with restrictions, and guidance is still coming out from the federal government on how the funds can be used.

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“This is evolving as we speak,” Melissa Kinzler, city finance director, told commissioners during their May 18 work session.

There will also be ARPA funds to municipal governments and other agencies through the state’s allocation.

Kinzler and Kirsten Myre, the deputy finance director, walked commissioners through the funding available and the rules that are known so far, as well as staff’s suggested guiding principles for the use of those funds.

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The majority of CARES Act funds the city received are considered unrestricted, meaning they have a broader range of use than the newer ARPA funds, which come with more regulations so far.

Kinzler and Myre said staff is working through the restrictions on the city’s direct ARPA allocation, as well as rules for other available COVID related funding, in an effort to make the most effective use of all available funds.

ARPA funds were made available for state and local governments, but also education and childcare, health, transportation, assistance to individuals and families and other programs, so city staff have also been meeting with the Great Falls Public Schools district, Great Falls Development Authority, Great Falls International Airport, Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and others to better coordinate the available funds for community needs and avoid duplicating efforts.

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The school district and airport have also received CARES Act funds and will get other COVID relief funds.

Cascade County is getting about $15.8 million in ARPA funds.

Kinzler said staff is looking at using the funds to address unexpected expenditures due to COVID and lingering economic consequences to the city and community; revenue losses to city departments; impact on community; position the city to better respond to future emergency management needs; leveraging funds to address broad community goals; addressing urgent capital needs now or needs on the horizon; leverage partnerships with other organizations that share the commission’s broad community goals.

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City Manager Greg Doyon said part of the task will be connecting other agencies and individuals with ARPA resources since the city won’t always be the best or appropriate option and other resources may be available.

Doyon is also hiring a grants manager to help oversee the city’s use of COVID relief funds since the regulations are complex and there will be significant reporting requirements.

“There are strings attached,” Kinzler said.

Doyon said that there’s a callback provision in the ARPA rules, so anything spent inappropriately can be taken back.

Kinzler said staff’s suggested principles for use of the funds include applying them primarily to non-recurring expenditures; paying direct COVID related expenses; recognizing the impact to residents, families and businesses; helping meet future requirements; special or unique opportunities; meeting commission priorities; preparing for future pandemic response and public safety.

ARPA funds must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024 and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

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The city is receiving $10.3 million in CARES Act funds, with no timelines or deadlines. About $167,000 of that was a direct reimbursement for COVID related expenses such as personal protective equipment and police, fire and dispatch, leaving about $10.1 million in the city’s general fund of unrestricted funds. The city also has about $936,000 in CARES Act funds that are in the city’s dispatch fund but within that fund are unrestricted.

City departments have submitted requests for use of CARES Act funds and staff is continuing to review and priorities those requests.

The city also has a capital improvement plan, which has been in place for several years and identifies and ranks major projects. The unfunded amount in the most recent draft of that plan is about $19 million, according to the city finance department.

Doyon said the library has been working with the YWCA about a possible broadband assessment in the community since funds are also available for broadband installation and he said the city is already being bombarded with requests from broadband vendors, but that’s also a complex situation in addressing rights of way, knowing where fiber is laid and how best to grant requests. Doyon said the public works department has said it wants to avoid a “spaghetti bowl” of fiber going into the ground.

Susie McIntyre, Great Falls Public Library director, said her staff is in discussions with the state library about how to use funds through recent state legislation for broadband projects.

Myre said funding is also available through the state for water and sewer projects, so staff will be figuring out what pot of money to use for which projects based on the rules and guidance.

Doyon said they’re still waiting on guidance for some of the money so it’s going to take some time and “thoughtful assessment” to use the funds strategically to the best of their availability.

Mayor Bob Kelly said, “we all have ideas of what we think are critical needs to our community,” but more guidance is needed for some funds.

He said that many states have sales tax and that revenue that disappeared during because of COVID, but Montana doesn’t have sales tax, “so really for the state of Montana this money is transformational. It really is an opportunity to do great things.”

Commissioner Rick Tryon said, “this is obviously a pretty complicated set of requirements. This has the potential to be transformational for Great Falls.”

He said he wanted to make sure the city was clear about the rules and the proper uses of the funds and communicate that to the community.

Commissioner Mary Moe said that she’d been “dreaming big” about the potentials for the funding, but was concerned about the restrictive language.

Moe said she was thinking of needs in the Mansfield Theater that have not been addressed for years.

She said she was thinking the city could now make some of those improvements, but “when I try to fit them into this package, I don’t see it, so I’m listening and learning.”

Commissioners will have a follow-up discussion about the guidance at another work session and budget presentations begin at the July 6 work session.