Plan for spending $16.25 million windfall unveiled

A store front, The Commons and the Bartholomew County Courthouse are reflected on the windows of Gramz Bakery and Cafe on Washington Street in downtown Columbus, Ind., Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018. Mike Wolanin | The Republic Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Recommendations were revealed Monday for the $16.25 million earmarked for Bartholomew County government through the American Rescue Plan (ARP).

The county has recently received about $8 million of federal funds earmarked for stimulus and COVID-19 related losses, while the remaining $8.2 million will be received before May of next year, county auditor Pia O’Connor said.

A committee consisting of O’Connor, county commissioner’s Chairman Larry Kleinhenz and county council members Scott Bonnell and Jorge Morales was formed to make the recommendations that came before the commissioners Monday.

While the recommendations were unanimously approved, the county council also has to give its approval. The proposal will be brought up during tonight’s 6 p.m. council meeting at the Bartholomew County Governmental Office Building at the corner of Third and Franklin streets.

The tentative spending plan provides efforts to create countywide broadband with the largest allocation of $4 million – almost 25% of the entire allocation, commissioner Tony London said.

Under the heading “county government revenue losses,” the committee tried to address revenue drops for the county highway and community corrections departments, the auditor said.

The $1.2 million allocated for township assistance reflects an anticipated increasing need for poor relief to individuals and families, O’Connor and Kleinhenz said.

The township trustees already have a system in place to provide poor relief, as well as know many who are likely to seek help, Kleinhenz said.

An allocation of $1.5 million will go to rural fire departments that were unable to engage in their traditional fundraising for over a year, while about $1 million will go to a limited number of nonprofits to help fill funding gaps, O’Connor said.

The auditor emphasized the $16.25 million will not be spent quickly. In fact, the federal government requires only that contracts must be in place by the end of 2024, and that the money is spent by the end of 2026, O’Connor said.

During Monday’s commissioners meeting, the longest discussion came after Capt. Dave Steinkoenig, commander of the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Road Patrol Division, asked about bonuses for county employees who put themselves at risk by working during the pandemic. There is roughly $307,000 that could be used for that purpose, Commissioner Carl Lienhoop said.

Sheriff Matt Myers requested bonuses for workers in more than 13 different departments on May 11, and Steinkoenig reminded the commissioners this one-time hazard payout – known as premium pay in the federal program – is allowed under federal guidelines.

There was no debate in the commissioner’s chambers that public health nurses, sheriff’s deputies and jail staff who interact with the public should be eligible for bonuses. However, arguments were made by Morales that several other workers in different departments, including election staff, believe they are also worthy of a bonus.

“So either we (give bonuses) to all, or we give it to none,” Morales said.

Commissioner Carl Lienhoop said there is not a clear consensus on this issue among the three commissioners. Kleinhenz asked Morales to have the county council make the decision on who qualifies for hazard pay.

But the issue became a bit clearer after London explained the federal government has specific guidelines on bonus eligibility, and county officials will have to going from department to department to make a determination who meets those guidelines.

London also described the federal funding as “evergreen,” which means bonuses can always be added at a later date.

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Bartholomew County government is limited to the following general areas in spending American Rescue Plan funding:

  • To respond to the public health emergency with respect to COVID-19 or its negative economic impacts. This could include assistance to households, small business, nonprofits, or to aid impacted industries such as tourism, travel and hospitality.
  • To respond to workers performing essential work during the public health emergency by providing premium pay to eligible workers of Columbus, Bartholomew County government, and non-entitlement units of local government. The funds could also provide grants to certain employers who have eligible workers who perform essential work.
  • For the provision of government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue to Columbus, Bartholomew County government, and non-entitlement units of local government, due to the COVID-19 public health emergency. This provision would be relative to revenues collected in the most recent full fiscal year of the local governments.
  • To make necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure as approved by the U.S. Treasury.

The county is prohibited from using this money to lower taxes, to increase pension funds or finance general county government expenses.

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  • Countywide broadband – $4 million
  • County government revenue losses – $1,190,773
  • New building for county health department – $1 million
  • Health department information technology – $100,000
  • Health department mobile unit – $300,000
  • Health department staffing – $600,000
  • Vaccine clinics – $1 million
  • Jail heating, ventilation and air conditioning – $1.25 million
  • Courthouse and Youth Services Center heating, ventilation and air conditioning – $1 million.
  • Information technology – $100,000
  • Maintenance – $200,000
  • Park improvements – $1 million
  • Township assistance – $1.2 million
  • Rural fire assistance – $1.5 million
  • Nonprofit revenue replacement – $1 million
  • Sewer and water improvements at the county fairgrounds – $500,000
  • Other and/or premium pay – $307,227

Total: $16,248,000