City continuing discussion on how to use $19.47 million in COVID relief funds

Tonight, City Commissioners will continue their discussion on how to use the city’s $19.47 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds.

They’ve been discussing how to use the funds for several months and staff has been asking commissioners to indicate their priorities for funding.

Commissioners will be discussing the federal funds during their 5:30 p.m. work session, which is virtual due to COVID-19.

In August, city staff provided a list of projects that had been requested by city departments and detailed those the city finance and legal departments deemed eligible for the federal funds under the guidelines.

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

Among those were improvements to the Mansfield Theater, equipment and facility improvements for Great Falls Fire Rescue as well as:

  • 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.

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During the Sept. 21 work session, commissioners again walked through the list of projects from staff and discussed their priorities.

Some commissioners have suggested putting some ARPA funds aside to be available for local agencies to apply for, but they haven’t come to a consensus yet on what that process should look like.

Commissioner Mary Moe said she was comfortable using a process similar to the city’s existing process for Community Development Block Grant funding, which is run through the city planning department.

City Manager Greg Doyon said that process is a lot of work, but staff needs guidance from the commision on their priorities.

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During the Sept. 21 meeting, Doyon said, “we need some sort of priority categorization” of the commissions goals. He said the goals they talked about during that meeting were pretty broad so he’d have staff put their plan in writing and have commissioners say yay or nay.

“It’s a lot of money to try to use for betterment of community, but going to take a lot of conversation,” Doyon said.

During the Sept. 21 meeting, Mayor Bob Kelly suggested using some funds to create a revolving loan fund to support economic development activities and said he“would like to see us contribute a significant amount to that” to Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce’s airline incentive fund.

The airport is getting its own allocation of COVID relief funds.

$3.9 million in federal funding coming to Great Falls airport to help offset COVID-19 losses

Commissioner Rick Tryin said he thought the bulk of the funds should go toward city projects, “that was it’s guaranteed it’s going to benefit the most people.”

For the Oct. 5 work session, Tom Hazen, the city’s grants manager, sent a memo in advance with an overview of what staff heard from commissioners during the last meeting and what questions staff still had for commissioners.

In his memo from Sept. 29, Hazen wrote that he had updated the application for ARPA funds based on discussion of the commission’s goals and priorities and the minimum grant request amount, based on the Sept. 21 work session discussion and written notes from Moe and Mayor Bob Kelly.

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“I hope that these edits capture the intent that the commission has for these funds. I would like to finalize the commission’s approval of the format of this document so that we may formally post it online for public consideration,” Hazen wrote.

He wrote that the following were repeatedly discussed as possible priorities:

  • Fire Department: funding for all proposed projects;
  • Mansfield Theater/Civic Center: funding for updated seating throughout the auditorium; Commission Chamber and courtroom: funding to update in compliance with CDC recommendations;
  • City communications and cybersecurity: funding to upgrade the equipment and effectiveness
    of city communication capabilities.
  • City parking garages: updates to on site security.
  • Allocation to local partners for further distribution: funding to Great Falls Development
    Authority, United Way, or Neighborworks.

“I would respectfully request that the commission consider whether this list reflects the body’s ambition for these funds. Are these the specific programs that the Commission wants to continue considering going forward? Are there other projects previously proposed that should be included in discussions moving forward,” Hazen wrote.

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 are being discussed separately.