BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – With the Nov. 1 funding deadline in the mirror, a panel overseeing the county’s usage of $6.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds set broad priorities on requests for funds Monday.
The county has nearly 40 requests for funds totaling more than $11 million.
The county has already allocated close to $2 million in matching funds to the Southeast Iowa Regional and Economic Port Authority to help trigger a $5.5 million broadband infrastructure project through Danville Telecom in Lee County.
Another priority of the panel appears to be building a new Lee County Health Department. Five-year-old architectural renderings and designs for the project carried a $2.6 million price tag in 2016. However, new plans could include a drive thru vaccination add-on as well as possibly housing a Lee County EMS ambulance facility at the building. With construction costs sharply on the rise, that project could now be close to $3.5 million.
The county has allocated just under $2.8 million for county projects and that project would eat up that fund if the project was totally funded.
But Supervisor Garry Seyb, Jr., said it was his hope that other funding sources would come to bear on the project.
“Are you talking about bonding?” asked Lee County Auditor Denise Fraise.
Seyb said he hasn’t been on the board long enough to answer that question. Supervisor Ron Fedler said the county could bond up to $750,000 without going to a vote and the county is currently paying about $80,000 per year to the state to lease current space at the Iowa State Penitentiary’s John Bennett Center.
Budget Director Cindy Renstrom said several county projects will be paid for in the next couple of years so some long-term debt will fall off the county’s books.
“We got a lot of bond debt in the next three to five years that we’ll be done with, so I would definitely consider as one extra source of revenue, a bond of less than $750,000 along with the ARPA money for the health department,” Fedler said.
The county was looking at building the health center on ground near the sheriff’s office, which the county already owns. However, mandated response times for the Lee County EMS would require them to have a bay closer to Fort Madison’s city limits, possibly on the west side.
Panel member Mike Norris said the group should also keep an eye on future infrastructure legislation for possible funding streams to help with costs, but he said other grants to build a health department could be limited at this point.
Other priorities include digitizing county records to allow the public to access records without necessarily coming into the county office. Lee County Conservation projects totaling about $1.6 million were moved into the tourism category to take pressure off the county projects category. A request from PAW Animal Shelter and an economic diversity group out of south Florida were moved down the priority list.
Housing priorities focused on Great River Housing Trust which asked for $650,000 for gap funding for housing projects. Southeast Iowa Community Action also requested $228,000 for housing assistance. A Tribulations Ministry also asked for $300,000 to help start a homeless center in Keokuk.
“Again, these are groups that maybe we should have come in and talk to us and then see where they are at in planning,” Seyb said.
“I think it in all cases, we’re going to have to have some kind of contract that’s protecting the county so when they come back to us on an audit we’re able to show this is how we spent the money and where we spent the money,” Seyb said.
“And those that do receive money from us and don’t spend it the way we anticipate, we have that ability to go back and collect.”
He pointed to the number of requests for child care centers, especially those in private homes. The county has allocated $650,000 to child care projects, but has received more than $1 million in requests.
“With some of the amounts that are being asked for, we need to be cautious in what we fund and how we’re funding it,” he said.
“I personally think we need to take pause. I don’t want to count anybody out or anybody in.”
Seyb pointed to additional state aid coming to child care providers from the state under a new proposal from Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds that includes in excess of $10 million in added child care facility and training support.
Seyb said whomever the county provides funding to has to have some skin in the game and the county needs to see a long-term benefit in the projects, especially those asking for more than $100,000.
Fedler said the county could look at funding projects, but not for the total amount asked.
Seyb said requests for stipends and bonuses and things like that without a plan for sustainability may not be a wise use of the funds.
The group is scheduled to meet monthly before making recommendations to the board for funding approval.