Butler County communities could get a whopping $147 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding

Preliminary estimates show some Butler County communities could receive about $147 million from the American Rescue Plan signed into law last week, but at least one county commissioner wants to send it back.

President Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law on Thursday, and it allocated $350 billion to help local governments weather the coronavirus pandemic. According to the latest disbursement list from the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform, the county would receive the largest allocation at nearly $75 million, but Commissioner T.C. Rogers said his “big picture” view of the money is to return it.

“My first inclination based upon my analysis of our financial condition and also what it’s going to take to spend this money, is to send it back,” Rogers said. “If one of our partners or whatever makes a good case to change my mind, let them bring it on.”

The county received $18.7 million from the federal CARES Act last year. There were many restrictions on that money, such as an end-of-the year deadline to spend it. Initially, only direct expenses incurred fighting the pandemic were reimbursable.

The deadline was eventually relaxed, and the U.S. Treasury decided salaries of people “substantially dedicated” to fighting COVID-19, like first responders, were eligible expenses. Because of the many restrictions the county and other jurisdictions allocated large amounts of their CARES money to salaries.

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The county parked $13.3 million in the general fund to cover public safety and other eligible salaries, but can reallocate to other uses such as a $6 million testing/vaccine program they planned to establish but have put on the hold for now. County Administrator Judi Boyko said about $4 million in unallocated CARES Act funding has not been spent.

Boyko told the commissioners the county should receive the first installment of the new funds by mid-May and they have until the end of 2024 to spend it. She said there are fewer restrictions on the new funding.

Commissioner Don Dixon told the Journal-News later he understands where Rogers is coming from in terms of adding to the national debt, but returning it won’t help the county.

“I’d gladly send this money back to Washington if I thought it would fix the problem. But we’ve seen time, after time, after time that sending this money back would not fix the problem, it just wouldn’t,” Dixon said. “Washington is so broken I don’t know what it will take to fix it but that won’t.”

He said the county has to compete with other counties and therefore needs the best trained work force, the best telecommunications capabilities, roadways, infrastructure and the like, and this money can be used to ensure those things.

“It just doesn’t make any send to our taxpayers to send it back, it won’t help them it would hurt them,” Dixon said. “That being said, we just need to make sure we do the same with this money as we did with the COVID money and put restrictions and audits and procedures and processes in place to see that this gets spent in the right place.”

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said she would like to form a group from the business community and others to discuss the best use of the large allotment of funds. She said training and other business programs could be helpful.

“If we send it back to the federal government there’s no benefit to Butler County taxpayers,” Carpenter said. “It doesn’t get back to us in any way, shape or form. This $75 million we can control and develop programs for that we can get the money back to our citizens. Now it will take work and careful planning and thoughtful planning, but I think it can be done.”

The amount is in question because the final bill did not include funding for townships, just counties, cities and villages in Ohio. But townships were funded in some other states like Michigan. The Ohio Township Association is working to change that. OTA Executive Director Heidi Fought said townships were included in the version that passed the U.S. House but not the Senate version the president signed.

OTA Director of Governmental Affairs Marisa Myers told the Journal-News there was definition change for “non-entitlement unit of local government” that apparently changed the funding formula.

“We are still trying to get a clear picture as to why, is it because of a tweak with the definition that was made, is it because Treasury didn’t have all the information for Ohio because Ohio townships and municipalities are still connected, is that why,” Fought said. “We’re just not sure, we’re still waiting for that information.”

The U.S. Treasury press office did not respond to an email requesting clarification.

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