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Belmont County makes plans for stimulus funds

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles that will examine how much money local governments will receive as a result of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, as well as how the funds may be distributed and invested.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — There is no shortage of uses for Belmont County’s share of the American Rescue Plan stimulus funding.

The $1.9 trillion aid package approved in response to the COVID-19 pandemic provides another round of Economic Impact Payments in the form of $1,400 to most individual Americans.

It also extends federal unemployment benefits, expands the Child Care Tax Credit and other credits. It includes funding for education and child care, health care, transportation and other programs. It also provides federal aid to states, counties and other government entities.

Belmont County Auditor Cindi Henry said spending at the county level will be at the discretion of the Belmont County Board of Commissioners.

“It’ll be their decision, who gets it,” Henry said, adding that there will be fewer restrictions than were associated with 2020’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds. “The parameters are much looser.”

There will be two different transactions to provide funds to local governments, according to Henry. The first will be within 60 days of the bill’s passage, the second one a year later. Henry added that the CARES Act funding last year went to such causes as assisting businesses and reimbursing salaries.

The total amount provided to Belmont County through the American Rescue Plan could be $13 million.

“I think it’s almost double what they got last time,” Henry said.

No decision have been made yet about spending the money.

“As far as how we’re going to disperse it, we haven’t formalized anything at this point,” Commissioner Josh Meyer said.

“We don’t know quite yet what we’re allowed to do and what we’re not allowed to do. It’s a significant amount of money, obviously, but as far as exactly how much, I don’t know at this time,” Commissioner Jerry Echemann said. “There may be money to help with broadband in this American Rescue Plan.”

“We haven’t been inundated with a bunch of requests at this point. We have until 2024 to utilize these funds, so I don’t think anyone’s going to be making any rash decisions by any stretch of the imagination. We’ll have some pretty detailed conversations and make sure we’re utilizing the funds the best way possible,” Commissioner J.P. Dutton said.

“The treasury is working right now on the guidance, and they still have a little ways to go. They’re working with the National Association of Counties and trying to get the guidance in place that we will work underneath. That might change as we go, but we’re hoping that it just provides some additional clarification, not change course once the funds are received, so there’s a lot to get figured out yet,” Dutton continued. “I think they really want to get it out as quick as possible. That’s the whole purpose of the funds, to get it in the hands of local governments as quick as possible so they can start using those funds.”

Dutton added that the commissioners will be deliberate in distributing the money.

“They’ll be funds that we can utilize quickly and we will if need be, but we’re not going to make rash decisions,” Dutton said.

He noted commissioners’ first priority likely will be response to public health emergencies, then reimbursing various county departments for COVID-related expenses if they still have them after receiving CARES Act funding.

“We can replace lost revenue. That’s easy for a county because so much of our general fund is not dependent on property taxes but is dependent on sales tax, and that’s easy to calculate the reduction of sales tax before the pandemic, post-pandemic. I’m sure we’ll look at that as an option in replacing that lost revenue when so many businesses were shut down.”

Other uses could be investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

“There’s lots of needs for our roads and bridges. Anything we can get we’ll put to use and make the most of it,” Belmont County Engineer Terry Lively said. “We’ve got needs all over the county. We’ve got a big list of unfunded slip projects out there for instance. I’ve got some big bridge projects coming up in the next few years.”

Municipalities are looking at potential uses for their allocations as well.

“Supposedly, we’re supposed to get $1.1 million,” St. Clairsville Safety and Service Director Jeremy Greenwood said of the city, adding that there is no shortage of projects there. “The restrictions that I’ve seen talk about being able to use it for critical infrastructure. We submitted a loan application for $3.1 million for our distribution system, so I can spend a million in a heartbeat on the water system.”

A major pending project is connecting the city’s distribution system to Belmont County’s water service and upgrading the aging waterlines.

“What we would do with that is part of our distribution system,” he said of the American Rescue Plan funding. “Within the next five to 10 years I want every waterline in the city upgraded that hasn’t been installed since the ’90s. We’ve got lines from the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s, the ’60s, I want them all gone. I want new lines, I want new distribution. I want to look for growth. We’ve got the potential for a couple developments in different areas of the city. I want to have enough infrastructure built into the system that we can handle that and look at expanding into the future.”

However, he isn’t counting on anything until the money is in hand.

“I haven’t seen anything official yet,” he said. “Until I see a check, I don’t believe anything. Until it’s put in the coffers, I’m not counting on it, I’m not doing anything other than what we’ve already done, then we’ll adapt and adjust.”

Martins Ferry is expecting to receive $1.28 million. Mayor John Davies suggested the money could be used as matching funds for grants, such as for a new dog park or upgrades to the City Park.

“It’s a gift to the city since we’ve had such difficulties the last couple of years,” Council President Kristine Davis said.

Other local government leaders say they can make good use of any money they receive.

“All the townships are in need of infrastructure, anything from roads and bridges to water and sewer, broadband, you name it. They need it all out there, and any extra dollars that could help our townships would be tremendous, because our township budgets are the lowest in the county, the lowest in the state,” Pultney Township Trustee Frank Shaffer, president of the county townships association, said.

“I think they’re pretty much all hurting to some extent. I don’t think you can target any one part of the county that isn’t hurt in those manners. If oil and gas ever gets fruition again, we’re going to need this infrastructure in place.”

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