Pandemic assistance programs supported by federal funds will continue receiving money under the American Rescue Plan Act in Anne Arundel County Steuart Pittman’s budget, and his administration is drafting language to include the County Council on future spending decisions.
The county has the next 3½ years to spend about $112 million granted through the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that President Joseph Biden signed in March. The act provided $350 billion in aid to states, local governments, territories and tribal governments with far fewer strings attached than under the previous CARES Act. Congress passed the bill with the vast majority of Republicans voting against it.
Pittman’s fiscal 2022 budget proposal includes $18.2 million of federal assistance money the county received in the latest round of coronavirus relief payments to local governments. This money is spread across uses in the health and fire departments, as well as a funding shelter program for homeless county residents and further community grants.
Through it, Anne Arundel received $101 million it used to help residents stave off eviction, find food, support their businesses and pay bills. The county government also used the money to shore up its budget, which over the last 18 months has stretched to cover COVID-19 testing and vaccination, personal protective equipment and overtime for employees assisting pandemic-related emergency programs.
That money has been entirely accounted for, if not spent already. The county received the money after the council unanimously approved legislation making space for it. At the time, some of the Republican council members were concerned about how the money was spent.
Chris Trumbauer, county budget officer, said the administration is looking to further involve council members. The County Council has the final say on county expenses.
“CARES was a sprint; ARPA is a marathon,” Trumbauer said. “We want to involve the council, and we’re actually working now on a process for them. We’re going to have an opportunity for external stakeholders to submit proposals or ideas. Ultimately, they’re the fiscal authority.”
Councilman Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, was critical of the previous way the county implemented federal spending. To the administration’s credit, he said, they have given the council reports as promised, even past the deadline set in legislation, making room in the budget for the funding.
But if the council is to be involved, he suggested using the tools in place already.
“The right way to do it is to put it in the budget or do it in supplemental budgets that come to the council,” Volke said. “To me, that is how you should do it, do it the way we have always done it.”
Unlike the money granted through the CARES Act, which initially had strict parameters for how the funds could be used and a tight deadline for spending them, the money granted through ARPA can be used for a more broad array of purposes, including water, sewer and broadband infrastructure; lost revenue; anything related to the coronavirus pandemic; and assistance to vulnerable people.
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Additionally, the money doesn’t have to be spent until the end of 2024.
Contained within the $18.2 million is $5 million for the county health department to assist with continued pandemic expenses. The money is a placeholder, Trumbauer said, as the health department is expecting to get other grants to assist with COVID-19 prevention and mitigation as well.
There is $1.8 million each for the fire department and the county Mental Health Agency to support paramedic training and mental health programs enhanced during the COVID-19 pandemic, respectively.
Also included are $4 million for water and wastewater projects, $1.8 million toward community grants to continue grants offered to local organizations during the pandemic and $2.1 million to buttress the county’s expanded childcare program.
Finally, the budget proposal includes $1.8 million toward the alternative shelter program started during the pandemic to ensure homeless county residents have temporary housing in a local hotel.
The county has hired a consultant to help manage the new money and explore the way other counties across the country are using it, Trumbauer said. This month, the county is using $25,000 from general funds to pay for the consultant. The county will use federal stimulus funds for this job next month and going forward.
There is no CARES Act funding in the budget, but the $18.2 million programmed into the proposed budget are all “slam dunk” programs permissible under the act, Trumbauer said.