City reviewing possible uses for $19.47 million in COVID relief funds

The city is receiving $19.47 million from the American Rescue Plan Act and officials are discussing how to spend those funds.

The city received half, $9.7 million in May and will get the second half in May 2022.

Under the federal law, the funding must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024 and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.

The guidelines have continually changed and city staff has taken a conservative approach to spending the funds due to threat of claw back if the funds are spend inappropriately.

The city also received about $10 million in CARES Act funds, but those funds have different regulations and were not a part of Tuesday’s discussion.

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Melissa Kinzler, city finance director, and Kirsten Myre, the deputy finance director, walked commissioners again 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. They gave a similar presentation in May.

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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.

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

In May, 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.

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The law explicitly says ineligible uses of ARPA include: offsetting reduction in net tax revenue, make deposit into pension funds, pay off debt, or pay legal settlements. City finance staff said that usage of ARPA funds as matching funds for other grants is not yet determined.

The city’s new grants manager, Tom Hazen, who is leading the effort to determine the federal rules and how to use the federal COVID-19 relied funds, said that the city has applied for some funding for water and sewer projects through the state’s infrastructure program, but can also use its own ARPA funds toward these infrastructure projects.

He said that while the funds also allow for broadband infrastructure, there are multiple providers currently in negotiations for broadband installation in the city and if that occurs, the ARPA funds for those types of projects won’t be as necessary.

Since staff developed the initial priorities and asked departments to submit project proposals. There were more than 140 project requests from city departments.

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Hazen said that staff reviewed those projects several times, after each new round of guidance from the federal government was released and that many were determined to be ineligible because they didn’t have direct correlation to COVID-19 as required by the federal legislation.

But, there are still more than $19 million in projects that have been deemed eligible.

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Some of those projects include (this is not the full list, which is available here):

  • Hire a consultant to conduct a city-wide strategic communications and engagement plan for an estimated $50,000 to $100,000, plus a temporary position to coordinate neighborhood councils while city’s communications coordinator focuses on the project. A similar request was made in this year’s city budget and not recommended for funding by the city manager’s office.
  • Extend water and sewer to the area of 33rd Avenue South and 23rd Street South and points further south in
    accordance with master plan documents. Depending on project, staff estimates it could be done by the first quarter for 2026 at an estimated $10 million.
  • Other potential projects include:

City Manager Greg Doyon said that initially staff thought they’d have more latitude to use the funds for infrastructure and based on that asked the city planning department to look at anticipated growth areas and develop estimates for addressing known infrastructure needs in those areas, or ways to encourage developers to annex properties in those areas.

Doyon said he’s asking commissioners to consider if they want to use the ARPA funds, which are a one time influx of cash, for a few big projects or lots of small ones. Staff said they want commissioners to determine their priorities for using the funds and staff will act accordingly.

Doyon said that a recurring theme staff has heard is growth, housing, developing Great Falls and that one of the things they here is that the cost of infrastructure is an impediment to that growth.

The city has not finalized any plans for spending the ARPA funds and will be continuing discussions in public meetings on the proposed projects, funding areas and whether to make some of the funds available for community agencies through a grant-type program.