Federal Rescue Plan Act relief aid coming soon to Columbia Countyby J.D. Bailey on 05/04/21
With hundreds of billions in federal relief aid headed into state and local governments across the country over the coming weeks, the Columbia County Quorum Court on Monday voted unanimously to establish a special fund in the county’s financial budget to hold the expected revenues.
The new budgetary fund, officially called the Columbia County Rescue Plan Fund, was established this week as the deadline nears for the first federal aid payments to be dispersed as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which Congress passed on March 11. As part of the bill, $130 billion was specifically set aside to assist local governments in coronavirus recovery across the U.S. Of that total, local governments in Arkansas are set to receive $2.8 billion in fiscal relief assistance. The monies deposited in the county’s Rescue Plan Fund will follow guidelines issued by the U.S. Treasury, according to Monday’s passage of the special new account.
Numerous factors, including population and economic considerations, went into determining how much aid each local government will be issued. According to Civilytics Consulting, a Massachusetts-based data science consulting firm, language in the American Rescue Act Plan determines that each county will receive $198 per person in aid. When applying that formula to the roughly 24,000 county residents locally, Columbia County could receive approximately $4.7 million in federal aid by May 10.
That amount, however, has not been officially verified by the Columbia County government. On Monday, Columbia County Judge Denny Foster said he was not sure exactly how much the county would receive and how, specifically, the funds could be used once it receives them.
“We were just told to be ready for the funds, and to set everything up properly before we get the aid,” he said.
The estimated assistance figure for Columbia County, though, does line up with other county relief aid amounts already announced. Pulaski County, which is one of the 200 largest counties by population in the U.S. and the largest in Arkansas, is set to receive just shy of $78 million, or $198 per person, in the federal aid package, according to Civilytics Consulting.
City governments are also set to receive American Rescue Plan Act aid separately from counties, according to the data firm. The amount, however, differs by population. Cities with populations over 50,000 could get anywhere from $200-$300 per person in aid, while cities with populations under 50,000 could see an estimated $240 per person. Little Rock, alone, has already been announced to be in line for $37 million in relief aid, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. That amount is expected to be separate from Pulaski County's aid total.
According to the U.S. Treasury, the federal relief funds are designed to remedy the “mismatch” between rising costs in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and falling government revenues. However, many local governments have actually seen a rise in tax revenues over the past year, instead of a decline. In March, the City of Magnolia announced that it saw a tax revenue increase of around 7% over its 2020 budget and, because of the strong financial year, issued raises to most of its workforce last month. Columbia County Finance Chair Annette Pate also announced recently that the county government had taken in more tax revenues in 2020 than it previously estimated. Much of the revenue increases are thought to be linked to a growth in online sales tax collection, according to local government officials.
On Monday, Foster said he was not sure how the incoming federal aid monies for Columbia County will be spent or what parameters will be put in place for the funds by the federal government.
“I estimate that it will be related somehow to COVID. That’s all I know right now,” he said. “We’ll know for sure when we are told what we can do with it.”
It is also unknown how much of Columbia County’s federal aid allotment will be issued in the first round of Rescue Act funding. According to the relief bill, all of the monies must be dispersed to local governments by May 10, 2022.
According to findings by Civilytics Consulting, the firm determined that the Rescue Act relief funds can be used to aid local small businesses and nonprofits, provide government services to workers deemed essential, and make investments in local infrastructure -- including water, sewer, and broadband. These parameters, however, are only estimates by the data firm and have not been confirmed by the local government.
Regardless of the limitations or designations on the aid, Columbia County, along with numerous other cities, counties, and schools, will be the recipient of significant amounts of coronavirus aid since the pandemic began in March 2020. To go along with the incoming federal aid, the county in October applied for -- and eventually received -- approximately $676,000 in state-funded grants to help offset coronavirus hazard pay for county law enforcement and healthcare employees. The grants were linked to federal funding issued to states as part of the $2.2 trillion federal CARES ACT of 2020.
In other Quorum Court news:
- The joint city-county emergency rescue truck project is progressing. The new truck is currently being outfitted with rapid response equipment, according to JP Russell Thomas, but the process is moving slowly. On the legal side of the project, Columbia County Attorney Becky Jones said Monday that negotiations are “moving along,” and should be nearing the final stages of the agreement between Columbia County and Magnolia soon.
- A $2,550 grant has been issued to the county via the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. The funds will be used to purchase 8-10 foot spike strips for the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office.