Kent County, cities begin to talk ARPA spending

By Leann Schenke
Posted 7/23/21

DOVER — Now that the first installment of the $350 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding allocated to governments across the nation has been delivered, the challenge locally is …

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Kent County, cities begin to talk ARPA spending

Posted

DOVER — Now that the first installment of the $350 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding allocated to governments across the nation has been delivered, the challenge locally is determining how best to spend the money while following rules for its use laid out by the federal government.

Kent County will receive a little more than $35 million in ARPA money. Of the county’s cities, Dover will receive $8.6 million, Milford’s sum is $6.34 million and Harrington’s is $1.9 million. The funds were divided into two installments — the first was sent out in June and the second will be delivered in June 2022.

Levy Court Commissioner Allen Angel, who chairs the administration committee, recently traveled to Washington on behalf of the county as the ARPA rules are being determined. An interim ruling is in place, but the final ruling on how the funds can be used has not been approved yet.

“This is a major undertaking from what I saw and what I’m hearing,” Commissioner Angel said during a Tuesday Levy Court meeting. “Not just for us, but even some of the cities that are a lot larger than us.”

As outlined on the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s website, the funding is meant to support COVID-19 response efforts, replace lost revenue within governments, support economic stabilization for households and businesses and address systemic public health and economic challenges.

Kent County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange called the county’s sum an “unprecedented amount of money,” in a telephone interview Thursday, as the county normally would not receive funding from the federal government.

“In any measure, it is substantial,” he said.

To determine how to best allocate its ARPA money, Levy Court is forming committees with citizens. Commissioners will serve as liaisons.

Two committees have been formed — one with a focus on hospitality, travel and tourism. The other, led by the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, aims to assess COVID-19 related losses for small businesses.

The first committee has had one meeting so far and the second is aiming for a first meeting in August. Mr. Petit de Mange said both have the goal of formulating recommendations that will be brought before Levy Court and to keep those recommendations as straightforward as possible.

Mr. Petit de Mange spoke to a number of areas the ARPA money could benefit like helping small businesses and nonprofits as well as the county’s infrastructure needs like sewer and water. Another area he said he’d like to see benefit from the ARPA funds is economic development and, in particular, helping businesses to rehire people who were laid off during the pandemic.

Speaking to the timeline for ARPA spending, Mr. Petit de Mange said the county is waiting for more guidance. The final ruling may not happen until September, at Mr. Petit de Mange’s best estimate.

He said the county has three years to use the money noting it is under no obligation to use all of it. Remaining funds would be turned over to the federal government.

Given the final guidance is still being worked on at the federal level, Mr. Petit de Mange said programs using ARPA funds will not likely go into effect in Kent County until the fall.

He said the interim ruling was written broadly to fit the vastly different communities across the county.

“We have to see how it fits us,” Mr. Petit de Mange said. “Our goal would be that when we do use it, we take careful record and make sure we are complying with the allowable uses.”

He said he’d also like to see communication between the county and its municipalities on how best to use the funds to benefit as many people as possible.

“The idea here was, first and foremost, to help communities recover from the negative economic impact of the pandemic. The shutdown of our economy,” he said. “Everything from lost wages to lost jobs, the lost income to pay for things like mortgages or rent. All those things that ripple through the economy, that’s what it’s all about and I think what has been articulated in ARPA’s allowable uses is good.”

In May, Dover City Council hinted at filing a federal lawsuit in an effort to receive more ARPA funding. The city’s $8.6 million allocation was determined based on a formula used in Community Development Block Grant funding. County aid is decided by population.

Because of this formula, Dover is receiving less funding than areas with smaller populations. Dover, with a population of 36,166 as of U.S. Census data from 2019, is receiving less ARPA funds than both Middletown and Newark.

Middletown has a population of 18,869 and is receiving $11.5 million. Newark has a population of 33,515 and is receiving $17.1 million.

The Dover City Council had previously envisioned putting ARPA funds toward parks and recreation improvements like installing a riverwalk.

Lou Vitola, director of finance, said during a city council meeting that Milford will allocate about half a million of the first installment to improve public health and reduce economic impacts from the pandemic. Other portions of the ARPA funding will go toward replacing revenue that dipped due to the pandemic like lower than normal police fines.

Another area the money could benefit is parks and recreation because the decline in programming resulted in revenue loss throughout 2020.

The bulk of the city’s ARPA funding will be put toward infrastructure — about $4.25 million. Mr. Vitola said that means lead line replacement, lead abatement and hazardous substance abatement. It will also be used for water and swerve related street remediation.

Mr. Petit de Mange said Kent County is in a similar boat to Sussex County in that both are waiting for the final ruling to come out before determining how best to spend the ARPA funds. New Castle County, he said, received Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Security Act funds in 2020 and is able to utilize existing committees to help determine how to distribute its ARPA funds.

He said New Castle County will likely target affordable housing, infrastructure, early childhood development and education, parks and development and bike paths as well as public safety.

Sussex County, he said, may use its funds to improve medical care in the county.

While broadband access has become a hot topic given the increase in virtual learning and work last year, Mr. Petit de Mange said the state had received funding specifically for its improvement.

“The state will take the lead on that,” Mr. Petit de Mange said.

However the funds are allocated, Mr. Petit de Mange said ensuring the money is being spent responsibly is a major focus going forward.

“The compliance aspect of it is going to be important to us,” he said. “There may be ideas out there that we’ve heard about that aren’t going to be able to be funded with this money because, maybe it’s a good idea or project, but it’s not what was intended with the money. We just need to be careful with that and when we need to, ask questions.”