Debate continues on county's Rescue Plan fund use

Some suggest $1m to be split among townships, municipalities; others suggest grants

CENTREVILLE — While some pieces of St. Joseph County’s $11.8 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds have already more or less been finalized, county commissioners are still trying to figure out what to do with a $1 million portion of those funds.

During Tuesday’s Executive Committee meeting of the Board of Commissioners, they discussed how best to spend a $1 million portion of their allocation originally intended for “external funding,” something they have not yet come to a conclusion on how to do.

Recently the county held an information session on the ARP funds at the Rivers Enrichment Center in Three Rivers, and are in the final days of a community survey asking local residents their opinions on what the $1 million can be used for. The survey can be found at stjosephcountymi.org/survey.

Each of the commissioners, including the county administrator, had their opinions on how the money should be spent. Second District Commissioner and board chair Kathy Pangle said the money should be split up equally between the townships, cities, and villages – a 24-way split at about $41,666 each – something she said many township supervisors and villages are on board with.

“I have talked to Park [Township], the village of Mendon, Burr Oak, White Pigeon, Colon, they all would like to see the monies split equally,” Pangle said. “I don’t want some of these little places to be left out, and I don’t think it’s right they have to compete against each other.”

Third District Commissioner Dennis Allen agreed, noting Nottawa Township officials have shown support for the idea. County Administrator Teresa Doehring, however, differed in her opinion, saying the municipalities have already received their allotment of ARP money.

“They already got their dollars distributed to them that way. I thought the discussion we had with the steering committee and the other conversations we’ve had is we wanted to do at least one thing to balance the spirit of those dollars with our needs,” Doehring said. “I’d like to see what those townships have to bring to us that’s going to have an impact on our community, as opposed to just [subsidizing them].”

Pangle disagreed, saying the township officials were elected to represent their citizens and know what their community needs better than the county.

“I think they have enough faith in them and I think they know better than we would know what their needs are. I think they’d spend it on what they feel they need,” Pangle said.

Doehring expressed disappointment over non-profits being seemingly left out of the picture, something originally mentioned as a possibility to use the ARP funds to help, and that the conversations “should’ve happened three months ago.” Pangle noted the conversations didn’t happen three months ago because they only recently got feedback from the township officials.

Fourth District Commissioner Dan Czajkowski said he sees both sides of the issue, and the county should do its “due diligence” to use the money “to the best of our ability.” He advocated for having communities apply for pieces of the $1 million grant-style instead of doling it out evenly.

“Having the community apply for it, you could look at the needs and say, well that’s nice, or, oh boy this is really improving their water system,” Czajkowski said. “Part of the application process could be the community does some kind of match, a 25 percent or 50 percent match, because now if the community believes in what they’re doing enough, they’ll kick in the money. A lot of grants, there’s always some kick in it.”

Allen, however, said there could be a pitfall to that plan.

“How many hours are we going to spend or a committee going to spend and how much,” Allen said. “Who’s going to be the person who says, ‘Your project’s worth $100,000, but sorry, yours isn’t worth it’?”

Doehring said if the county goes that route, they can go about the approvals and denials of applications in a “strategic and professional” manner, adding other communities have gone about that in the process.

First District Commissioner Jared Hoffmaster, who earlier in the meeting suggested the $1 million should be used to help fund a proposed energy savings project at the St. Joseph County Jail, said ultimately Public Sector Consultants, the firm the county hired to help them with spending the ARP funds, should be asked about that particular process.

“I agree with everything that’s been said at the table. Ultimately, you’re going to pick winners and losers no matter how you look at it,” Hoffmaster said. “But is [splitting the money evenly] the right button? Just because it’s the easy button doesn’t mean it’s the right one.”

County Finance Director Angie Steinman said if the money is given to townships, they would technically be sub-recipients of the ARP funds, meaning they’d have to go through the same reporting requirements laid out in the rules for the money. Commissioners, she said, would need to be held accountable with that to make sure it’s used for the right purpose.

“That could be 100 projects and receipts, who’s going to go through that,” Steinman said. “There’s a lot of work involved in that potentially.”

Ultimately, Doehring was instructed to meet with Public Sector Consultants to go over what was brought up in Tuesday’s meeting and find out which way would be the best option to go.

Fifth District Commissioner Ken Malone said while he’s not in favor of giving the money to the other townships, they should at least have the townships show what they’re going to use the money for first.

“I’m still floored by this from the beginning, taking a section of our money and giving it out as a duplication to the townships that’ve already received money. This is just so obtuse to what I thought the plan would do, but I didn’t have a say in it,” Malone said. “If you’re going to do it, you’ll need to have them spell out before they receive the money exactly how it’s going to be spent and realize they have to exercise that they show everything’s in compliance. If not, we’ll have to ask for it back.”

In other business…

  • Commissioners heard a presentation from ABM Industries on a potential energy savings project for the St. Joseph County Jail. Depending on what commissioners decide to go with, the project could cost between $2.4 million and $4.2 million, and would include a roof and roof membrane replacement, boiler replacement, an upgrade to HVAC equipment and controls, solar panel system replacement, and more. The board will make a decision on the scope of what a potential project would be during its May 17 board meeting.
  • Commissioners added to their next agenda a revised lease agreement with the Commission on Aging and the City of Sturgis for the Oaks Enrichment Center building. The revised agreement would see the COA be responsible for 30 percent of road repair costs from North Franks Road to the front driveway into the Enrichment Center’s parking lot, something she said Sturgis City Manager Mike Hughes is “on board” with. Currently, the agreement has the COA responsible for 30 percent of the costs from North Franks all the way to the back corner of the building.
  • Commissioners added to their next agenda a $72,509.50 request for a Community Corrections grant.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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