BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Lee County officials may look at paying Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission to help manage requests for distributions of the county’s American Rescue Plan Act funding.
The county has received about $3.3 million of a total $6.5 million in funding from the U.S. Treasury as part of the stimulus act. The other payment is expected in May of 2022.
A steering committee comprised of two Lee County supervisors, Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise, County Budget Director Cindy Renstrom, Deputy Auditor Sara Helenthal and SEIRPC Director Mike Norris have been meeting for the last two months to set up how the funding projects will be accepted and approved.
Lee County Supervisor Gary Seyb asked if Norris thought it would be a good idea to hire someone to help make sure the grant allocations would pass the sniff test with the federal government.
Norris said SEIRPC would be willing to help the county navigate the federal requirements, but said it would involve additional compensation over the current per capita funding arrangement in place between SEIRPC and the county.
“I think maybe we could tackle parts of this. We would have to talk about that and see what it looks like,” Norris said.
“There’s a variety of ways we could go about that. The critical pieces are the contracts and the applications, making sure the money is drawn the right way, and then verifying the activities have been completed.”
Seyb said it might be more efficient for the county to hire someone to do that work.
“I personally think that might not be a bad idea, especially if the money is not coming from taxpayer funds, it would actually come from grant itself. And that person could then focus also on the requirements of the grant and keeping this group apprised of the rules,” Seyb said.
Norris said there could be a potential conflict of interest with SEIRPC administering the Southeast Iowa Housing Trust and the Southeast Iowa Regional Economic and Port Authority, two groups which could be looking at funding requests from the pool.
Norris said the county could appoint someone to verify any funds going to SEIRPC administered group, and each committee member said they were comfortable with that idea.
Ron Fedler said he was also concerned about non-profits going to both the county and cities for funding help and called it double dipping.
Seyb said the guidance is so broad right now that the steering committee would have focus the projects and funding. He said he’s already seen requests come in for essential employees.
Seyb said the county should be reimbursed for any COVID-related losses before any funding is allocated. He also said a new Lee County Health Department building should be a priority rather than renting the space at the former John Bennett Center at the old Iowa State Penitentiary.
Fedler said he’d rather see a subcontractor do the consulting for the county and not make them a county employee so the county isn’t on the hook for the position after the funding has been spent.
Under the APRA program, counties have until Dec. 31, 2024 to allocate all the funds they receive, and then until Dec. 31, 2026 to have all the funds spent.
The federal government is still in the public comment time on the guidelines on what will be allowed as qualified expenditures. Renstrom said she wouldn’t expect final guidance on that until the fall.
The committee decided to not meet again until next month to see what progress has taken place at the federal level, and then start preparing an application process for groups to submit proposals.
The county is currently recommending that 20% of the funds go to water/sewer infrastructure to help cities with EPA mandated storm and wastewater sewer separations. Other proposed percentages of spending were 30% for Internet infrastructure, which could be used as matching grants to trigger more state and federal grants; 20% for county projects; 10% for housing projects; 10% for child care projects; 5% for non-profit requests; and 5% for tourism-related projects.