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Harford County, municipalities to receive about $83 million as part of federal stimulus bill

While most attention was paid to the $1,400 stimulus checks delivered to people around the U.S. as part of the recently passed $1.9 trillion federal relief package, local governments will also be getting a “stimmy,” including roughly $83 million to Harford County and its three municipalities.

County Executive Barry Glassman said the stimulus payment to local governments and municipalities will be delivered in two halves in the next and last quarters of the calendar year. Because some of the federal money will be available to offset lost county revenues, Glassman said he was considering using a portion of the Harford government’s approximately $50 million share for capital projects that had to be deferred and expanding broadband access in the county’s northern reaches.

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The county is still waiting for clear guidance on how it can spend those funds, Glassman said, so his tentative plans could change as more information becomes available. He hopes to have a clearer idea of the funds’ limitations by the time the county’s fiscal year 2022 budget debuts in April.

Besides the county government’s share, Aberdeen would receive about $13.3 million, Havre de Grace would be given $11.7 million and Bel Air would get $8.4 million.

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In the current fiscal year, with the coronavirus bearing down on Maryland, Glassman pulled back nearly $11 million in one-time capital spending versus the previous year. Its total budget grew by about $45 million, but with coronavirus restrictions in place, and many businesses closed by order of the governor, county leaders were worried about the possibility of an economic downturn.

Thankfully, Glassman said, Harford County is in good economic shape through the pandemic. Federal CARES Act funding allowed the county to offer grants to restaurants, farms, child care providers and a variety of other businesses, but that federal funding could not be used to recoup lost revenue.

From the guidance known so far, Glassman said, the new money cannot be used to fund a tax decrease, but can be used to make up for a county’s revenue shortfall.

The funds could also be used to improve infrastructure, Glassman said, which has taken a backseat in some municipalities around the state.

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The federal funds were also brought up at a Monday meeting of the Aberdeen City Council. During that meeting, the council discussed improvements to its water and sewer systems.

“It is really going to make a difference for counties and municipalities as far as infrastructure,” Glassman said. “There is no doubt that it is a large amount of funding.”

The second half of the funding would also contain money usable for business grants, Glassman said, like those made possible by the CARES Act.

Audits are common for programs funded with federal money, Glassman said, and he is unsure if federal officials will want the new cash separated from the county’s regular revenues. The county just finished an favorable audit of its CARES Act funding usage, he said.

Glassman said he hoped the new federal money could knock a few years off the broadband expansion in the northern part of the county, which is expected to take several years. Earlier this month, his administration announced it had partnered with ThinkBig Networks, a company based in Chestertown, to begin that expansion.

Under an agreement between the two, the county will expand its fiber-optic network — called the Harford Metro Area Network or HMAN — that connects government buildings, the sheriff’s office, volunteer fire companies, schools and other civic services. That cable runs throughout the county, Glassman said, and will be expanded so ThinkBig to branch off it and deliver internet to homes and businesses in the county’s rural northern areas.

The push to expand broadband is largely dependent on grant money, which the county cannot apply for alone. Previously, it had an agreement with Armstrong, a Pennsylvania-based company, to apply for a federal grant under the USDA ReConnect Program for Broadband Funding, but that partnership fell through in February of 2020 when Armstrong unexpectedly reneged.

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