The Jefferson County Commission is considering how to spend money coming in as part of Phase 1 of the American Rescue Plan Act funds.
The commission began that discussion Tuesday, although the federal government has not yet issued the final guidelines for spending under that act. County staff devised the current plan using the preliminary guidelines, Justin Smith, an assistant to the county manager, told commissioners.
“We’re trying to get some money out immediately pending the receipt of that final guidance using the interim guidance that has been provided by the Treasury,” Smith said. “We don’t want to put all our eggs into one basket this time because things are going to change once that final guidance comes out.
“In terms of being able to amend amounts, sure, that’s possible,” he said. “In terms of what the programs are, these are categories that we’re going to decide to invest some funds in. Programmatically, those programs have not been built yet. We need a budget before we can build out a program.”
When all of the money has come, Jefferson County will get $60 million for the first half of the Rescue funds; $38 million has been received.
County Manager Cal Markert said the reason he presented the resolution now is to try to get an emergency food distribution program going toward the end of December.
“We can’t just take applications like we did with the Cares Act from anybody, vet it and approve it,” he said. “By the rules of the ARPA money, y’all have to set up the category in our program, we’ll have to set the criteria up (and) we’ll have to advertise it in the paper and on the web. It’s a lot different from Cares Act and it’s going to require a lot of effort on our part to manage it, but it is what it is. We’re trying to get going as fast as we can.”
Commission President Jimmie Stephens questioned whether administering these funds on top of the county’s general fund was too great a task for county staff. “We can’t put off getting this to the people,” he said.
Markert said the commission should hold the county manager accountable and it’s his job to hold others accountable. Commissioner Lashunda Scales agreed.
“The buck stops at you,” she said to Markert. “It starts with you and it ends with you. That’s about as simplified as you can get.”
A lengthy discussion about the rescue funds centered on whether tourist attractions in Birmingham – particularly those in the city’s Civil Rights District – are eligible for the funds
Commissioner Sheila Tyson lobbied that more money be initially allotted in the category of travel and hospitality for the “historical part of Jefferson County.”
The resolution was moved to the agenda of the commission meeting as presented without raising to $8 million the money currently allotted travel and hospitality.
Scales said county funds can’t go to city-owned properties. Tyson countered that those places – including the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Carver Theater – are operated by foundations and thus eligible.
“I think we’re getting into the weeds,” Commissioner Steve Ammons said. “We just need to approve this as presented.”