Butler County commissioners fund 15 projects with millions in COVID-19 relief funds

The Butler County commissioners after almost a year have agreed to spend $45.8 million of their $74.4 million allocation of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds on a wide array of countywide projects.

When they learned of the windfall last year they invited other governments and entities to pitch projects, the requests totaled in excess of $200 million. The three commissioners haven’t taken formal action yet, but haggled over funding level differences and came to a consensus Monday on 15 projects for a total of $45.8 million.

“I thought we did very well and got most of it out,” Commissioner T.C. Rogers told the Journal-News. “And we did it without any bloodshed

The largest award of $15 million will go to Butler Tech for two new advanced technology training centers, an aviation facility at Hook Field in Middletown ($7 million) and advanced manufacturing in Hamilton ($8 million). The initial estimate was a flat $12 million for each center. They sent the county an updated proposal for $22.9 million for construction, equipment and the first year of operation.

Superintendent/CEO Jon Graft told the Journal-News previously they haven’t sealed the deal yet but are hoping to locate the manufacturing center in the old Richard Allen Academy on the Miami Hamilton campus. He said they believe they can serve at least 200 students per campus and possibly up to 300. He said they will absorb operating expenses after the first year.

This was a top priority for Commissioner Cindy Carpenter and she told the Journal-News although they didn’t fund the entire request the project is still doable.

“I’m confident these funds will get the project done,” Carpenter said. “Now Butler Tech may have to finance the remaining funds from somewhere else, but I think that’s something they can do.”

The second largest project is $10 million to get high-speed internet countywide. The commissioners have already issued a request for proposals for the project and they are due July 29.

The commissioners also approved $5 million for Miami University’s College@Elm Innovation & Workforce Development Center, the original ask was $10 million, but that was subsequently bumped up $2 million more to pay for start-up operating costs.

The center will house office space, an entrepreneurship center, startups, a workforce and small business development resource center, a design and testing area and space for manufacturing operations in a former Miami food services building.

The commissioners refused to contribute to operating costs on the school projects.

Throughout this process, Commissioner Don Dixon has said he wanted the educational institutions countywide to work together. He said he wants to make sure that is a component in the subrecipient agreements with the colleges.

The biggest debate came over funding community centers. The city of Middletown and the schools there were looking for $6 million to help fund a joint Sonny Hill Community Center expansion project that is estimated at $6.7 million to $12 million.

ExploreCounty-wide broadband project moving forward Butler County Commissioners issuing requests for proposals to provide $10 million high speed internet project. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

The Great Miami Valley YMCA was looking for $1.9 million to renovate the Booker T. Washington Community Center in Hamilton. Both of these projects made the priority list for all three commissioners but at various funding levels. In the end they decided to give $1.5 million for each project.

Rogers said he spoke to the people organizing the Sonny Hill project and that’s how he arrived at his $1.5 million recommendation, that the other two also agreed to contribute. He said the money will help them address the negative effects of the pandemic and “I want to do to be consistent with what we’ve done with Hamilton.”

“I think it’s a factor about how much money goes to one community versus another,” Rogers said. “I know that we’re doing other things in the Middletown area and you add those up and we’re making a significant contribution.”

Former Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick was the first to ask for the county’s ARPA funds, submitting a request for $6.6 million to help the city “transform and redevelop” the Ohio 4 corridor entrance to the city and also support the Oakland Neighborhood revitalization. The commissioners agreed to give the city $3 million — the latest estimate was $3.4 million, almost $1 million more than the original price — to demolish and finish clean up of the old Middletown Paperboard site.

Carpenter said although it didn’t make the commissioners’ preferred list they should also consider granting the $1.5 million for the Oxford/Talawanda Food Pantry resource center project, “my point being that we are not equally taking care if all of the community centers.”

County Administrator Judi Boyko said the Oxford project was not being considered in this first phase of funding because a majority of the board didn’t make it a priority. She said they can revisit it when they make decisions on the rest of the money.

The commissioners are also investing in roads and critical infrastructure repairs in the townships and small villages. The commissioners initially agreed to give County Engineer Greg Wilkens $10 million over two years to help fix county and township roads. They pared that number back to $4 million each in 2023 and 2024.

“Being a former township trustee I know there’s never enough money and their funding has been cut terribly and they are just getting by,” Dixon said.

The villages of College Corner, Millville, New Miami and Seven Mile also submitted an $11.5 million proposal to fix water systems, flooding and other infrastructure, but the estimate was reduced to $4.7 million. The commissioners approved $4 million.

There was also some dissent over the proposed emergency mental health crisis stabilization center. The request was for $5 million, but Carpenter said she doesn’t want to allocate money until there is a more “tangible” plan.

“It’s not ready, and it’s a concept, and if you decide to contribute money at this time you’re going to be floundering trying to figure out what you’re giving it to, you’re going to be floundering trying to write a contract,” she said. “We don’t know what it is, it’s not defined, it’s a variety of concepts.”

A request for proposals will be issued in September for the project.

Dixon noted they have already decided to use the Care Facility for this center — they are in the process of shutting down the nursing home operation.

“I’m committed to the project and if $3 million gets it established I’m okay with that,” Dixon said. “I think it’ll take more and more can come maybe from other entities. I think that’s probably a proper look. I think you put you money where you’re mouth is, we’ve committed to all these people and we need to show the funding is there.”

He said they can make certain in the subrecipient agreement “this doesn’t mean they can just spend it and move forward with a plan without our approval.”

There are a number of other smaller projects that also received the nod.

Boyko told the Journal-News the next step will be to meet with the groups who are receiving the funding to make sure they understand everything that is required of them to ensure compliance with federal rules.

The commissioners also asked Development Director David Fehr to look into hiring a contractor to oversee the projects, something Carpenter pushed for.

“My concern is that we get the projects done on time and in a complete fashion with minimal amount of challenges you have with multi-million projects,” she said. “I want us to have a boots on the ground person her who goes out and looks at the projects on our behalf and reports back if there are problems before they occur. It’s just going to be hard to herd the cats when everyone starts spending money.”

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