Gadsden explores options for over $24 million in COVID relief funds

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City of Gadsden Planning Director Nick Hall discusses COVID relief funding on Tuesday, July 13 at The Venue.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

The City of Gadsden welcomed the public to The Venue Tuesday, July 13, for a conversation concerning Coronavrius State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, established by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

Of the $350 billion in emergency funding dispersed nationwide, Gadsden is set to receive a little over $24 million, and local citizens now have the opportunity to voice their opinions on how those funds should be spent.

Gadsden will receive the funds in two portions, with half of the $24 million and change already provided in May of this year. The remaining balance will be received 12 months later in May of 2022. Attendants of Tuesday’s gathering received a fact sheet, detailing the restrictions and requirements for the recovery funds. Designed to assist eligible local, state, territorial and Tribal governments with “a substantial infusion of resources,” the funds are directed to fulfill pandemic response needs, rebuilding the economy as the country recovers from COVID-19.

Eligible uses according to the fact sheet provided include:

  • Supporting public health expenditures, by funding COVID-19 mitigation efforts, medical expenses, behavioral healthcare, and certain public health and safety staff;
  • Addressing negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency, including economic harms to workers, households, small businesses, impacted industries, and the public sector;
  • Replacing lost public sector revenue, using this funding to provide government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue experienced due to the pandemic;
  • Providing premium pay for essential workers, offering additional support to those who have borne and will bear the greatest health risks because of their service in critical infrastructure sectors; and
  • Investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, making necessary investments to improve access to clean drinking water, support vital wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, and to expand access to broadband internet.

Though recipients of funding have flexibility to address the varying and diverse needs of their communities, the American Rescue Plan Act identified two ineligible uses to ensure all monetary support is used for its intended purposes.

The two specific ineligible uses according to the fact sheet provided include:

  • States and territories may not use this funding to directly or indirectly offset a reduction in net tax revenue due to a change in law from March 3, 2021 through the last day of the fiscal year in which the funds provided have been spent.
  • No recipient may use this funding to make a deposit to a pension fund.

Other ineligible uses include funding debt service, legal settlements or judgements, deposits to rainy day funds or financial reserves and general infrastructure spending, which is not covered as an eligible use outside or water, sewer or broadband investments.

While the money must be spent within Gadsden city limits, the funds must cover costs incurred between March 3, 2021 and December 31, 2024. Extensions apply if funding is obligated to a project incurred by December 31, 2024 and expended by December 31, 2026. All funds received that are neither obligated nor expended by this set timeframe must be returned to the U.S. Treasury.

“$24 million is very significant,” said Gadsden City Planning Director Nick Hall, who led the meeting. “We’ve all been involved with federal funds [in the past, but] this is new to us. This is a lot of money. We want to hear from you; we want to hear your suggestions [on how to use the funds]. Let me say right up front, we don’t have anything set in stone right now. We have some ideas, but we want to hear from you, and then we want to take those suggestions and compile them and have a budget; ultimately, a rough draft for the mayor and council to sign off on.”

Gadsden residents have access to suggestion forms (which were distributed at the meeting), available at the City of Gadsden’s website. Forms can be delivered to the first floor of Gadsden City Hall at 90 Broad Street or mailed to COVID-19 Funds, c/o City of Gadsden, PO Box 267, Gadsden, AL 35902. Suggestion forms must be turned in by July 20.

Hall noted that the city will form a staff internally to form a budget, working alongside the mayor and city council members, meeting with them one-on-one to discuss the needs in their districts. Other city officials present during Tuesday’s discussion included Community Development Planner Renee Baker, Personnel Director Kerry Payne, Director of Engineering Heath Williamson, Public Affairs Coordinators Michael Rodgers and Chamberlain Parker, Gadsden Fire Chief Wil Reed and council members Thomas Worthy and Kent Back.

Cyber security, drainage projects, crime tip lines and developing programs for local youth were addressed as potential funding initiatives. Hall also addressed Etowah County Probate Judge Scott Hassell’s proposal for a mental health response team as a positive resource in the community. Audience member Kimberly Campbell suggested that the funds provide internet access for students or establish a cloud-based system for essential workers to ensure their work is accessible, regardless of location. Campbell also considered interest that might accrue on the funds, which would require further investigation.

Former city councilman Robert Avery spoke as a representative on the Southern Regional Task Force, quoting President Joe Biden’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.

He referenced Section 2 of the order, which establishes its purpose, stating: the term ‘equity’ means the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.

The order also states, “the term ‘underserved communities’ refers to populations sharing a particular characteristic, as well as geographic communities, that have been systematically denied a full opportunity to participate in aspects of economic, social, and civic life, as exemplified by the list in the preceding definition of ‘equity.’”   

“[The funds] should go to neighborhood groups,” said Avery, reflecting on the order. “[The funds should go to] a lot of our youth programs to cut down on some of the violence and drug activity. We feel like the money should go to the people, and that’s what we want to fight for.”

Avery also discussed Biden’s proposed $6 trillion infrastructure plan as additional funding for Gadsden. Should the plan pass, Avery noted that those funds could address drainage and sewer issues, rather than designate large portions of the $24 million to one specific project. Hall shared that when it comes to infrastructure and additional funds, the budget could be amended.

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