The ACC Commission is developing a tentative framework for how to spend Athens’ share of federal funding granted by the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan. The framework includes housing assistance, youth development, small business or workforce assistance and other priorities which will be further refined through discussion with various community organizations. The framework could be headed for a vote as early as February 1.
How much money did Athens get?
The ACC Unified Government will receive $57 million in total, not counting additional millions received for other needs such as public transit. The Clarke County School District also received $48.5 million in a separate pot of money.
Compared to the 2020 CARES Act coronavirus relief bill, there’s a bit more flexibility here in how funds can be spent. For example, programs funded with Biden’s plan can stretch out over a longer period of time; funds must be allocated by the end of 2024 but they don’t have to be spent until the end of 2026.
There are four approved American Rescue Plan spending categories. The first category includes programs designed to respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency or its negative economic impacts. Premium pay for essential workers is another approved category, as is providing for government services like transit. Making investments in public infrastructure like water, sewer or broadband is a final potential use of the funding.
How much have we spent so far?
The mayor and commission have authorized about $22 million for spending of the $57 million total package thus far. Of the $22 million, they’ve authorized $8 million for premium pay and a retention bonus for ACC government employees, $2.45 million for an official homeless camp, $4.4 million for an eviction prevention program, $750,000 for vaccine incentives, $400,000 for a disparity study and $500,000 for youth development.
Since the commission is likely to continue splitting the funding among various small programs like this, a significant overhead cost should be expected. ACC financial staff estimate that about $2.4 million will be spent on administration alone through 2026. That leaves about $35 million remaining to be spent over the next five years.
What will the money be spent on?
Mayor Kelly Girtz let the commission know his priorities for the funding in a work session last week. Girtz’s plan is to spend $12 million on affordable housing or housing assistance, $8 million on additional youth development programs, $6 million to tackle homelessness and behavioral health issues and $4 million for small or disadvantaged business assistance. He plans to keep the remaining $5 million in reserve, to be spent as the need arises.
That would leave some available categories, such as public health and infrastructure, without any additional funding in the years to come, something that irked Commissioner Russell Edwards. Edwards argued that some of the money should be spent on infrastructure, specifically for managing stormwater and on improvements for the Five Points intersection. “Drive through the intersection, you see how dangerous it is. There’s children walking to and from school every day there.” Edwards said.
Commissioner Carol Myers tentatively agreed, although she did not object to Girtz’s plan. She did say that the commission should consider, for example, providing COVID-19 testing kits to the public as the pandemic continues. She also brought up the possibility of using American Rescue Plan dollars to supplement Athens’ road paving fund, which has been stretched thin in recent years.
Other commissioners said that infrastructure needs could be satisfied through a combination of TSPLOST 2023, general tax revenue and help from the federal infrastructure bill. For example, Commissioner Jesse Houle wanted to keep American Rescue Plan funding focused on the social spending priorities laid out by Girtz, because local revenue streams often have more restrictions on how they can be spent.
“This is an opportunity for us to do really transformative things that we can’t usually use local funds for,” Houle said.
Commissioner Mariah Parker generally agreed with Girtz’s plan, but wanted to tweak the category names in small but potentially important ways. For example, Parker wanted to rename Girtz’s “small business assistance” category to “workforce assistance,” and furthermore, to provide support only to businesses which pay a living wage to their workers.
“Thinking more broadly about how to support not only business owners but also employees, it would be ideal if any fiscal support for businesses be conditioned on living wages and paid time off for employees,” Parker said.
This may not be something the commission can do legally, but both Houle and Commissioner Tim Denson tentatively supported the idea, pending an investigation into its legality by the ACC Attorney.
Parker also wanted to split the “homelessness prevention and behavioral health” category, saying that “there are a lot of behavioral health challenges happening in the community that are not exclusive to the unsheltered population.”
The commission may vote on this general framework for how to spend American Rescue Plan funds as early as February 1. If commissioners can’t come to an agreement that quickly, it would be delayed until February 15.
Whatever they decide, next month’s vote is just the beginning of a year-long process to refine their plan in collaboration with community organizations and the public.
For every category created by the mayor and commission (e.g. affordable housing, homelessness prevention, workforce assistance, etc.), the local government will craft a matching strategic plan. These multi-year plans will go far beyond the relatively small amount of funding available through the American Rescue Plan in the hopes that new revenue sources can be identified. Drafting them will take most of 2022, giving ample opportunity for public input along the way.
The commission will vote on the strategic plans in late fall, but this second vote would still not authorize any spending. Every individual project making up these plans will need to be approved one at a time, as the need arises. So don’t think that you’ve missed your chance to comment on how this money should be spent. One opportunity to comment on the general framework is right now, or just before the vote in February, but there will be others. It’s also possible that there will be a public call for project ideas in a participatory process similar to SPLOST.
APN will keep you informed on this as it develops throughout the year.