Officials from many Western North Carolina counties came up with proposals for how to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds shortly after the money reached the governments’ bank accounts in May 2021.
Few of those plans, however, have been without recrafting.
While some WNC county officials put off appropriating ARPA money — funds intended to recover communities from the COVID-19 pandemic’s financial and social onslaught — until clearer guidelines from the federal and state governments emerged, others quickly established plans for the funding.
As part of a yearlong project looking into how ARPA funds are being used in North Carolina’s 18 westernmost counties, Carolina Public Press published an article detailing some WNC counties’ plans to dedicate ARPA funds to premium pay for county employees.
Since the article’s publication in early February, many of those plans have changed.
Added ARPA projects
In October, just five months after receiving Macon County’s $6.9 million allotment, government officials pledged all of its ARPA money to provide bonuses for county employees, who County Manager Derek Roland called the county’s “most valuable asset.”
“It is these men and women … (who) have gotten us up to where we are now during this pandemic,” Roland said during an Oct. 12 County Commission meeting. “And this legislation recognizes that they’re going to be the ones that take us through to the finish line.”
Per the ARPA appropriation, county employees will receive a bonus of $2 for every hour worked from April 26, 2021 through Oct. 20, 2024.
While this still remains the case, Roland said the county has now also opted to use $200,000 to expand broadband through the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, or GREAT, grant, a program in which the state matches the funds counties pledge to expand internet access.
Similarly, Cherokee County officials designated some of the community’s ARPA funding to premium pay for Health Department and Sheriff’s Office employees shortly after receiving the first batch of ARPA money.
Cherokee County still plans to use ARPA for premium pay, Finance Director Candy Anderson said. However, more plans have been added since the initial decision.
Now, roughly $878,000 in ARPA funding will go toward bonuses for essential workers, with the remaining $4.7 million covering salaries and benefits, Anderson said. Cherokee is able to do this because government officials claimed the ARPA funds as revenue loss and moved them into the county’s operating budget.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury allows local governments to claim as much as $10 million in ARPA money as “revenue loss,” regardless of whether the communities actually saw a dip in revenue.
Graham County also elected to use a portion of its ARPA on premium pay. The county has since voted to use the funds toward mental health initiatives, broadband expansion and parks and recreation infrastructure, County Manager Becky Garland said.
Specific projects under the mental health initiative and recreational infrastructure categories have not been determined.
“The board wants to be very intentional to provide the greatest good for the people and because the funds do not have to be appropriated until December 31, 2024, these projects could evolve,” Garland said July 5.
Keeping with original plans
Buncombe County designated $1.04 million of its more than $50 million in ARPA funds for a one-time bonus for first responders and front-facing staff providing mandatory services who worked for the county from March 2020 to March 2021.
The bonuses were distributed Dec. 31 and ranged from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the level of COVID exposure, said Rachael Nygaard, Buncombe County director of strategic partnerships.
Being the most populous county in Western North Carolina, Buncombe received the region’s largest ARPA amount — more than $50 million. The county has kept to its initial plans and has pledged more than $28.6 million in ARPA funding toward broadband expansion, COVID response and nonprofit organizations as of July 13, according to Buncombe ARPA information webpage.
The only significant change Buncombe County has made has been its timeline of awarding ARPA funds to nonprofits.
“Commissioners initially anticipated several new awards being announced in late June, but the focus on adopting the annual budget took priority,” Buncombe County spokesperson Kassi Day said.
“We are now looking to later in the summer for the potential next round of awards. (The county) does not anticipate opening up for additional applications, and there have been no changes to previously awarded funds.”
Swain County is the only government still committed to using all of its ARPA dollars on premium pay for essential workers, County Manager Kevin King said July 5.
Swain, along with only four other WNC counties —Burke, Jackson and Yancey — have kept their original ARPA proposals.
Burke is the only county in WNC that does not have a solidified plan to date.
Yancey moved all the funds into its operating budget to pay the salaries of workers in departments hit hard by the pandemic, such as the jail — an expense decided before the first ARPA report was due to the U.S. Department of the Treasury on July 31, 2021.