County, cities allocating ARPA funds
Local jurisdictions are considering how to spend millions of dollars coming to cities and counties through the American Rescue Plan Act.
The Scappoose City Council started discussions about how to use an expected $1.7 million in recovery funding at an Aug. 16 meeting, although it is yet to take any action to allocate the funds.
St. Helens is furthest along in the process, with its City Council approving allocations for $3 million in early August.
Columbia County, which will receive nearly $10.2 million, has offered less transparency so far.
The county has not had any discussions about how to use the funding in open session, and it rejected a records request from the Spotlight that sought any lists the county commissioners had drafted with priority uses for the ARPA funds. The county said those lists qualified as attorney-client communications, which are exempt from public records laws.
Instead, the county provided the latest list of 10 priority projects but did not specify the amount budgeted for any of the projects.
The county projects are records management system and records scanning; Prescott septic; a water needs study; John Gumm building improvements; an ambulance service study; broadband internet; a hospital feasibility study; a public health mitigation/quarantine center at the fairgrounds; a backup generator; and small business assistance.
Commissioner Margaret Magruder said at the advice of attorneys, the discussions have taken place in closed sessions, because some projects, like the John Gumm improvements, required discussions about contract negotiations.
"As we move forward, there will probably more open-session conversations," Magruder said. "We're not trying to keep any secrets … we're trying to be prudent in our discussing things."
Magruder said the process for deciding how to use ARPA money started with "a list that was a mile long, some things left over from CARES Act and lots of new things that people have brought to the table."
She added, "We're leaning toward long-term investments, things that would be around and usable longer than just protective equipment or masks to wear."
Magruder said the list of 10 priority projects is not set in stone and could change depending on costs.
"We're just slowly taking them on, task by task, and seeing how we can possibly make them happen," she said.
Magruder, who lives in the Clatskanie area, said the broadband project "is pretty much top on everybody's personal list" and that the water needs study was particularly important to her, given the needs of the agricultural industry.
"If we're going to grow any more in Columbia County, we have got to determine our water availability and what our future water needs are going to be," Magruder said.
Paul Vogel, executive director of the Columbia Economic Team, said he's asking the county and cities to contribute to starting up a small business resource center, which will offer training, resources, and one-on-one advising with local small business owners.
"I feel pretty passionately that there's a need, because I've worked with an awful lot of businesses that I couldn't do enough for last year," Vogel told Scappoose city councilors in August.
The proposed resource center, which would also house a business incubator, has a four-year startup period budgeted at $700,000, with at least $150,000 needed from local jurisdictions to supplement state and federal funding.
In Scappoose, staff recommendations for ARPA fund use included $175,000 to offer $5,000 bonuses to all city employees for working through the pandemic. Another $400,000 would go toward premium pay for Scappoose Police Department patrol officers and command staff over the next two years.
Staff proposed using $129,133 to replace a wastewater pump station and $750,000 to replace water meters, which staff wrote "would help address the city's high water loss issues."
Scappoose is considering sending $25,000 to CET's small business resource center.
The Scappoose fire district also requested $200,000 to replace an old ambulance. Fire Chief Jeff Pricher said that it would cost close to $275,000 to replace the ambulance, but the fire district has been saving money.
"The amount of abuse that this ambulance has received as a result of the constant decontamination from transporting COVID patients or suspected COVID patients is definitely starting to take a toll," Pricher said.
Though the Scappoose Fire District covers an area beyond city limits, Pricher said 80% of the calls to which the fire district responds are incidents in the city of Scappoose.
City councilors said they wanted more time to review certain requests, with multiple counselors voicing hesitancy toward the $5,000 employee bonuses.
Councilor Pete McHugh said there was "something disingenuous about having the city staff recommend their own bonuses," but city attorney Peter Watts — who serves the city as a contractor rather than a direct employee and wouldn't receive the bonus — said he had suggested the bonuses to Alexandra Rains, Scappoose's city manager.
McHugh said he isn't necessarily against giving the bonuses, but he feels there were many people in Scappoose who "have suffered a lot more from this than what our city staff has."
Councilors postponed a decision at their Aug. 16 meeting. The topic was not slated for discussion Tuesday, Sept. 7.
St. Helens is using $945,000 for "revenue replacement" in the city's general fund.
The city has budgeted funding for two staff positions in the parks and recreation department, totaling $480,000 for the three fiscal years left before the federal deadline to use ARPA funds.
The St. Helens City Council also approved $75,000 for renovations on the parks and rec building and $200,000 for library activities.
The city is offering $50,000 for the Columbia Economic Team's small business resource center.
Other economic development projects for St. Helens include funding a part-time main street coordinator for $90,000 over three years; $400,000 for improvements at an industrial business park; $430,000 for water and sewer infrastructure; and $80,000 for a broadband study.
St. Helens has also allocated $300,000 for an IT specialist, who will also be partially paid from non-ARPA funds.
All cities and counties will receive funding, with dollar amounts based on population. Columbia City is expected to receive $448,864; Vernonia, $506,359; Clatskanie, $406,242; and Rainier, $446,200, according to state estimates.
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