Lancaster County’s board of commissioners on Wednesday approved a $168 million budget for 2022. The Republican chairman, Josh Parsons, boasted that property tax rates won’t change under the plan – the ninth straight year of no increase. Spending grows only slightly under the plan, which forecasts a slight surplus for the year.
But missing from the plan are details on how the county will spend the $106 million it’s receiving under the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal stimulus bill enacted back in March and frequently referred to by its acronym, ARPA. So far, the county’s leaders have outlined plans for only a small fraction of the amount.
A few members of the public have urged the commissioners to seek public input for how the money should be spent and, as soon as possible, use some of it to help people in need, like renters who fell behind during the pandemic.
Eliza Booth, a leader of progressive activist group Lancaster Stands Up, asked about the ARPA funds during a commissioners work session on Tuesday.
“The ARPA money was specifically designated to communities around this country to help people recover from COVID,” Booth said earlier this month in an interview with LNP | LancasterOnline.
“There are still a lot of working families that still can’t pay their rent, the list goes on and on,” she said. “I think that money should be addressing working people in Lancaster County and not put toward pet projects or other things that I don’t think are going to help the working people of Lancaster County.”
But Parsons and his GOP colleague, Ray D’Agostino, say they are waiting for guidance from the federal government on what types of projects the money can be spent on. When it was passed early this year, lawmakers sold ARPA as pandemic relief, a way to jump start the economy still shaking off the disruptions of 2020’s shut downs. But actual rules from Uncle Sam on how the money can be used aren’t final.
“Not just the county – every single municipality, every township, every borough – got these funds,” Commissioner Josh Parsons said during a meeting last week. “They’re all waiting for final guidance on them.”
Counties around Pennsylvania are playing a similar “wait-and-see” game, according to Lisa Schaefer, the executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
“The general sense across our counties is that there are a couple of pieces they’re waiting for to make sure they’re using their funds the most effective way possible,” Schaefer said. “You have 67 counties with 67 different sets of needs to really dig into their communities and put those dollars where they can be most helpful.”
For now, Lancaster County’s elected treasurer and controller say they are considering using the delay to make money. They are exploring an agreement with CS McKee, a Pittsburgh-based asset management company, to take a part of the first installment of the stimulus money – $53 million received in May – and invest in securities that will pay interest.
Depending on how the investments are structured, the county’s leaders will gain time – time for the feds to issue final rules for what the money can be used for, and time for the county to set its priorities. The biggest deadline they face is Dec. 31, 2024. By then, local governments must allocate all of the ARPA money, though the money itself can be spent through Dec. 31, 2026.
The interim set of guidelines set by the U.S. Treasury says ARPA funds can be used for rent relief, small business grants, or improvements or expansion of broadband internet access and water and sewer systems. There’s nothing stopping counties or municipalities from spending on those types of projects now.
The county’s GOP commissioners have said they are interested in using the funds for a wider range of infrastructure projects, with Parsons highlighting legislation in Congress that would allow governments to spend some of their funds on a wider variety of projects.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the county is going slow just as it’s in the early stages of planning construction of a new prison facility, a project expected to cost well over $100 million when all is said and done.
What do taxpayers want?
Other large Pennsylvania counties have started spending their ARPA funds or, as a first step, creating processes to guide their decision making. For example, Bucks County created a $5 million small business grant program. Montgomery County, meanwhile, created an agency to collect community feedback on how this influx of federal money should be spent.
Closer to home, Lancaster city, which received $39 million under ARPA, collected feedback from 599 residents so far, with many residents recommending investments in affordable housing, behavioral health and homeless services, according to its Engage Lancaster site.
So far, Lancaster County hasn’t created a dedicated process for collecting public input on the stimulus spending. Commissioner Craig Lehman, the lone Democrat on the board who announced his resignation on Friday, asked his colleagues to create a citizen engagement process in July. He said his request has been ignored, but still hopes the three-member board will approve it.
“While it is true that some of the guidance isn’t finalized, I believe we’re slow to the tape in terms of figuring out how to use the (American Rescue Plan Act) funds,” Lehman said in a meeting earlier this month.
County Controller Brian Hurter, who sits on the committees that watch over the stimulus funds, said he has not seen any “significant request” from members of the community.
“We’re trying to be a little more cautious,” said Hurter. “We dumped a lot of money into the community in (2020). I would hope if it was identified that there was a significant need that could be dealt with with ARPA funds that would be strongly considered by the commissioners.”
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker voted against ARPA, calling it a “spending frenzy to fund liberal priorities under the guise of COVID-19 relief.”
Now that it’s law, a spokesperson for Smucker said there’s no rush to spend the ARPA funds, since many local governments are still figuring out how to use money they received back in the spring of 2020 when Congress approved the first big pandemic relief bill.
But if they are to be spent, Smucker believes municipalities should be given wide latitude to decide how, the spokesperson said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey also wants more flexibility for local governments. He is a co-sponsor of a bill that passed out of the Senate this fall that would let counties use the funds for a wider range of infrastructure projects.
Still, Casey’s office said in a statement that the senator encourages counties to use the stimulus funds expeditiously to “meet the urgent needs of their communities,” adding that his intention in supporting ARPA was so governments could support “kids, families and jobs.”
For now, though, Lancaster County, waiting for more official guidance from the Treasury, will try to grow its stimulus pot by investing some of it.