Butler County has $75 million in federal funds on the way: How to spend it?

Butler County officials say they will focus spending the estimated $75 million windfall from the American Rescue Plan Act on things that can be sustained long-term.

President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) into law March 11, and it allocated $350 billion to help local governments with pains caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The county, cities and villages here are penciled in for $147 million but townships were left out of the plan. The county’s share is $74.3 million.

The first round of funding should arrive by mid-May and the commissioners have until 2024 to spend it. Unlike the $18.7 million in CARES Act funding the county received last year, County Administrator Judi Boyko said there appear to be fewer restrictions on this money.

“Until the guidance is more robust and definitive I think it behooves to start planning on how to spend that money,” Boyko told the Journal-News. “Though I do believe from what I’ve read this allocation of federal funding looks at government services much more strategically in terms of building a foundation of infrastructure whether that be physical or system infrastructure.”

The money can also be used to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on households and businesses, non-profits and other industries; grant premium pay for essential workers, government or to employers dealing with the pandemic and revenue loss due to the pandemic.

ExploreTownships left out of $147 million federal COVID-19 relief windfall for Butler County

She said it appears the county can also spend the money on broadband systems, air quality within county buildings and water and sewer, among other things. She isn’t making any recommendations yet.

“I think putting capital into your buildings for air intake systems and circulation I think is definitely a benefit to the public we serve and the employees that work for the county,” Boyko said. “Butler County is a major employer.”

When the CARES Act money was awarded a year ago, the stipulations included that only direct COVID-19 expenses were covered and the money had to be spent by year’s end. The U.S. Treasury relaxed the rules, eventually allowing governments to pay salaries of “substantially dedicated” employees who were involved in the pandemic fight, like sheriff’s deputies.

Around $9.2 million was moved to the general fund for salaries but can be used on COVID-19 projects. Boyko said going into 2021 — deadlines for spending were extended — about $6.5 million was left in the CARES fund, but $4 million of that was previously earmarked for specific projects by the commissioners. The remaining $2.5 million has been encumbered or spent.

Miami University Economics Professor Bill Even said some other jurisdictions in the region have said they plan to add public safety staff with some their money, which he said is not prudent.

“To the extent that Butler County has not had a huge drop in revenue, it appears they haven’t, it seems to me it would be unwise for them to temporarily ramp up spending on things that would create long-term commitments...,” Even said. “I would encourage them to think about things that would have long-term benefits that don’t create long-term obligations like street repair.”

Even suggested perhaps the commissioners could consider lowering taxes. The rules specifically exclude shoring up state pensions or offsetting tax cuts. It doesn’t appear to preclude local tax cuts, something Commissioner Don Dixon has long said he would love to do.

“Somehow I want to get some of this to have a direct effect on lowering the taxes but it’s easier said than done. Once you do something, that has a thousand other implications that effect many, many, many different things,” Dixon said.

“That’s been on our radar but we haven’t been able to do anything yet. Of course we’re not where we wanted to be yet but we’re well on our way. Obviously lowering our taxes one way or another would certainly be something I’d be in favor of.”

About a decade ago after the Great Recession descended the county had to make painful layoffs and budget cuts, after years of what some officials have called bloated budgets and irresponsible spending. The three commissioners have vowed never to let history repeat itself.

Commissioner Cindy Carpenter said she is working on a plan called “Make a Difference.”

“This board of commissioners will use those funds to make a lasting difference in Butler County,” Carpenter said. “Some of the proposals from other counties seem to be short-sighted and put the money into services that will be paid and then there won’t be anything to show for it.”

Commissioner T.C. Rogers originally said he would prefer sending the money back to Washington but his fellow commissioners have said they don’t agree. With the townships currently left out of the funding scheme he and Commissioner Don Dixon said they would consider sharing some of their windfall. As for the rest, he said any expenditures must be justified.

“I am not going to just think up new needs and then have new boards and organizations to pass out this money to some other need somebody thinks we need,” Rogers said. “That’s exactly how you bloat a government and spend money which you don’t have in the future.”

The Ohio Township Association and several congressmen and senators are urging U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to expand funding to include the Ohio townships in the funding formula. OTA Director of Governmental Affairs Marisa Myer said there haven’t been any updates on the township funding, but Treasury has acknowledged they are aware of the problem.

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