Local governments are carefully planning out their use of remaining funds from the American Rescue Plan Act — the federal effort to help communities with economic hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
ARPA was signed into law in March 2021 and provides $350 billion in additional funding for state and local governments.
Orange County received a total of $28.8 million from the act and has $4.45 million remaining.
According to Orange County's website, funds must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, and fully expended by Dec. 31, 2026.
Jamezetta Bedford, the chairperson of the Orange County Board of County Commissioners, said the county is currently in the process of planning its budget for the remaining money. One of their primary concerns is maintaining affordable housing.
The board voted to tighten the criteria for affordable housing eligibility in November. Now, citizens must be at 30 percent or below the average median income to receive assistance unless they are in eviction proceedings or homeless.
“We do always have the power to raise taxes, but we’re trying not to do that because we know when we raise taxes, then rents get raised,” Bedford said.
The County dedicated $10 million of its total ARPA budget to broadband internet expansion in summer 2022. Bedford said rural communities have limited online access because there are no providers outside of cities and towns.
“The other thing we’ve been using ARPA dollars for is services for the homeless, and so that’s a concern,” Bedford said. “How are we going to backfill some of those positions with street outreach, which are social workers, and peer support workers, as well as housing locator positions?”
Towns and cities received their own ARPA funding separate from the county.
The Town of Chapel Hill received $10.7 million. Similar to Orange County, Chapel Hill prioritized affordable housing by setting aside $2.5 million for preserving existing affordable housing and building new units.
Sarah Poulton, special projects manager for the Town of Chapel Hill, said the Town budgeted funds for community partners, including five nonprofit organizations and Orange Water and Sewer Authority.
According to the Town of Chapel Hill's website, ARPA funds are meant to be used toward those most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. In order to address this, the Town prioritizes community members in Qualified Census Tracts, low-income neighborhoods and minority groups.
The Town also provided examples of where funds could go — including economic relief, education and youth employment, food assistance, clean water and stormwater, emergency housing and rental assistance and job training.
Poulton added that the Town wants to hear from the community in regard to how the remaining funds should be spent. Common community requests are for more affordable housing, parks and recreation, mental health support and aid for the homeless.
“Our council and our leadership was very adamant that we ask the community what they felt like was the most important thing to do with these recovery funds,” Poulton said.
There is also an ongoing public outreach campaign in Chapel Hill called Let’s Talk Town.
Part of the campaign includes an opportunity for community members to help decide how Chapel Hill should use $500,000 of ARPA funds.
Carrboro adopted a spending plan for $6.7 million of ARPA funds in October. Similar to Orange County and Chapel Hill, the Town set aside a large portion of money for affordable housing.
In October 2022, Carrboro had disseminated $326,000 of its funds in grants for small businesses and offered training for minority businesses and entrepreneurs. A funded study was also run to help identify disparities related to the Town's procurement of services and provide a path to better support minority-owned businesses.
The Town will use $475,000 of the $6.7 million to relocate and replace Underground Storage Tanks, a project to protect the environment and human health. The Town also allocated $1 million to create transformational projects of new units of affordable housing.
“Housing has always been a big consideration,” Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils said. “A lot of our rescue funds during the pandemic had to do with things like emergency rental assistance and other programs to keep people in their homes. We wanted to make sure we used at least a good portion of the ARPA money to continue to support our housing needs.”
Seils said the Town Council identified projects that would not require ongoing funding because ARPA funding is not ongoing. They also consulted nonprofit organizations in the community to better understand how funds can best be used.
“The purpose of the ARPA funding is to help the Towns and the counties deal with some of the impacts of the pandemic on our communities,” Seils said. “To us, it was really about finding the ways we could make the biggest impact related to the experiences that our community had during the pandemic.”
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