City finalizing plans for use of ARPA funds; beginning discussion of public safety levy
Updated 2 p.m. April 8
The city is moving forward with about $10 million worth of projects using a portion of its allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds.
The city received $19.47 million of the federal COVID relief funds and has been discussing how to use those funds since last May and during their April 5 work session, City Manager Greg Doyon and the grants manager, Tom Hazen, presented an updated list of recommended projects and asked commissioners if they were okay with staff moving forward to get bids and ensure their costs estimates are close.
The ARPA funds have specific restrictions, which have evolved since the funding was allocated last year, and city departments have developed lists of potential eligible projects that total well over the available funding.
The city also received $10.3 million in CARES Act funds, which are also federal COVID relief funds with their own set of restrictions and rules.
The city is also planning to set aside some the ARPA funds for a community grant program that local entities can apply for, but the commission has not yet determined how much funding they’ll make available.
Among the list of recommended projects are the acquisition of new space near the Civic Center to make more room for Municipal Court and shuffle city offices. That’s an estimated $2.3 million project. Staff has not said which building they are looking to acquire nor has a decision been made about the future of the Children’s Museum, which is owned by the city and the lease expires in 2023.
Doyon has told commissioners multiple times in public meetings that his preference was to use the building currently housing the Children’s Museum for office space once the lease expires.
“There does not appear to be a majority of Commissioners willing to terminate the CMOM lease at this time. With the current sentiment, I’ve had to contemplate options to address operational needs,” Doyon told The Electric.
The city has been discussing the space needs in the Civic Center for a decade, Doyon said, and if the commission moves on certain crime task force recommendations, particularly those for more staff, space will become even more of an issue in the Civic Center.
Because of the ARPA funds, the city has an opportunity to address the space needs without requesting additional local tax dollars, Doyon said.
As for the Children’s Museum, Doyon said “they do not appear to have made substantial progress with finding another location. I would anticipate further review in the fall of 2022 to evaluate the city’s space progress and their progress. At that time, I’d re-assess and determine how to move forward with a possible CMOM lease renewal.”
The recommended ARPA projects also include upgrades to the boiler and HVAC systems in the Civic Center and the construction of an evidence building for the Great Falls Police Department, as well as other facility upgrades to the police and fire departments.
“These are the projects we saw as real priorities,” Hazen said.
Doyon said the recommended projects would need to be budgeted or financed and “they need to get done and we know that they need to get done relatively soon.”
Doyon said staff wants to get bids and estimates on the proposed projects since costs have been escalating.
‘I think it’s time to start moving” on these things, Doyon said.
The list of potential projects includes some that aren’t in the initial priority list that could be funded with remaining ARPA funds, the infrastructure bill, grants or the city budget.
Commissioners agreed that staff should start getting bids to move forward.
Doyon said there were some requests for additional staffing from departments, but he’s not recommending using the one-time COVID funds for ongoing costs without sustainable funding plans. One of those staffing requests was for four additional patrol sergeants at the GFPD as recommended by the crime task force.
The recommended projects list includes remodeling various city buildings to make more office space and reconfigure existing office space to make it more effective. Some departments are scattered or out of space and the city has looked at using the Gibson or Missouri rooms to create office space, but officials have said they prefer to keep those public spaces in tact.
Commissioner Eric Hinebauch said during the work session that he wants to discuss at a future work session the possibility of a sending a public safety to voters.
Commissioner Joe McKenney said they need to start looking at public safety funding to implement any of the crime task force recommendations.
Hinebauch and McKenney said they needed to gather information on public safety needs to consider a levy.
The crime task force met for months and public safety officials presented and discussed their needs in multiple public meetings. The task for presented their recommendations in November.
During each budget cycle, the police and fire departments, as well as every other city department, present lists of their needs and what’s called “above and beyond” requests for funding. Most years, the commission has not funded those requests.
The city has discussed the possibility of a public safety levy many times over the years, including in 2019 and 2014.
The city sent a $1.7 million levy request to the voters in 2009 for additional firefighters and police officers. That levy failed.