Here is where $75M in local projects funded by pandemic relief money stand

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Largest is $10M altafiber high-speed internet access for all areas.

Butler County communities are making headway on spending $68.5 million in coronavirus relief funds the county commissioners have awarded and decisions are still outstanding on $7 million more.

President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act into law March 11, 2021 and it allocated $350 billion to help local governments with pains caused by the coronavirus pandemic. When the commissioners learned they had nearly $75 million to spend they invited other governments and agencies to pitch them ideas.

The county received an eclectic array of funding requests — totaling more than $200 million —including economic development and educational endeavors, help for the homeless, propping up small businesses, park and bike trail expansion and countywide broadband to name a few. They ranged in price from $24 million for new advanced aviation and manufacturing training centers in Middletown and Hamilton to $125,000 for healthcare worker training.

The commissioners kickstarted the largest single project last week, awarding a $10 million contract to altafiber to bring high-speed internet access countywide.

During a recent work session, David Kramer, senior director for Corporate Strategy and Development with altafiber, said they plan to have fiber available to residential customers within three years and all others, such as businesses and multi-unit buildings like apartments within four years.

“When we are done everybody who has granted us permission to get onto their property and deliver fiber will have fiber,” Kramer said. “The way I look at this and the way telecommunities look at this is every foot of Butler County road right-of-way will have access to high-speed fiber.”

Road projects begin

The commissioners recently executed a $16 million paving contract to tackle nearly 73 miles of rutted county and township roads. The robust paving budget was bolstered with $5 million in ARPA funds the commissioners allocated to the program. They allotted another $5 million for next year.

Betsy Horton with the county engineer’s office said crews will start work in St. Clair Twp. in the next couple weeks, “from there, they will head northwest and work their way around to finish repairs in West Chester Twp.”

Where the county’s federal rescue funds went

The commissioners awarded the first batch of funding totaling $52.4 million in July giving a large amount — $20 million total — to educational endeavors, namely $15 million to Butler Tech for new advanced technology centers for aviation in Middletown and advanced manufacturing in Hamilton and $5 million for Miami University’s College@Elm workforce center.

The second round of funding came in December, including $16.1 million for city and township infrastructure projects, parks, a community center and a non-profits package. There is $7 million — including $1 million in earned interest — left to award.

County Administrator Judi Boyko recently gave a status report on the ARPA awards. Since the county is ultimately responsible to the federal government for all of the dollars, subrecipient agreements had to be forged with the entities awarded funds and a reporting portal — all the entities had to be schooled on the portal which has taken some time — established.

“Funding was released to the subrecipients after all documentation was submitted, attesting to and assuming responsibility to follow the reporting portal and providing their cost allocation plans and internal policies and procedures on how the subrecipients handle expenses and revenues,” Boyko said.

To-date she said nearly $20.4 million has been distributed to recipients awarded money in the first batch of projects and $1.14 million had been spent as of the fourth quarter last year. None of the money has been disbursed for the second grouping of projects.

She told the Journal-News as of Dec. 31 Miami University spent the most, $1.1 million for the College@Elm Innovation and Workforce Development Center. The Hamilton Community Foundation Inc. spent $9,572 for the HYPE Hamilton Young People Empowered program and the county visitors bureau spent $5,000.

Miami’s is the first commissioner-funded project to be completed. The university cut the ribbon last month on the off-campus business incubator in a former school food services building that is now dubbed the Lee and Rosemary Fisher Innovation College@Elm.

The project has received a total of $17.5 million in funding from a host of investors. Miami asked the commissioners for $10 million — and later requested an additional $2 million for start-up operating costs. The commissioners awarded $5 million, they declined to approve operational costs for any projects.

Associate Director of Media Relations Alicia Lipton said so far they have spent a total of $4 million of the commissioners’ money and “all remaining funds are allocated to the College@Elm and will be expensed in coming months.”

Most projects are a work in progress

The largest award of $15 million went 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 after the commissioners asked people to update their proposals.

Superintendent/CEO Jon Graft told the Journal-News they met with business and industry partners in November 2022 “to begin solidifying program pathways for current and future job skills.”

Now they are working to obtain ground leases with Miami University for property on the Hamilton campus for advanced manufacturing and the city of Middletown for aviation education hangar at Hook Field.

They are also working on architectural and construction service documents. Butler Tech is contributing $5.5 million to the projects including first-year operating costs. They have also applied for a $2 million Ohio Site Inventory Program Grant. They haven’t received the county funds yet but are hoping to launch the programs in 2025.

Costs of work are skyrocketing

The commissioners made another large investment to help the villages of College Corner, Millville, New Miami and Seven Mile make critical infrastructure repairs. They asked for a total of $11.5 million and received $4 million.

Shawn Campbell, the consulting engineer who submitted the joint funding request told the Journal-News they are still working through the county’s compliance protocols before they can access their funds.

He said the earliest they could start construction is spring of 2025 because “the cost of infrastructure has gone through the ceiling” they are also hunting for supplemental grant funds which takes time.

“We have until 2026 to do these, nobody wants to rush, when I say that I say that tongue in cheek, the villages would like to have it done now,” Campbell said. “But at the same time we want to be prudent with the funding that’s been allocated.”

The commissioners also allocated $3 million each to Fairfield, Hamilton and Middletown for infrastructure/economic development projects and those communities are in various stages of their projects.

Middletown was the first entity to request a slice of the county ARPA funding in 2021, the commissioners approved $3 million of the $6.6 million request for redevelopment dollars. The portion they approved was to to demolish and finish clean up of the old Middletown Paperboard site.

The city’s Development Services Director Ashley Combs said they received their money in November and work has begun on the project. She said they believe they can do the work using only the commissioners’ funds and it should be complete by the end of 2025.

Hamilton was looking for $11.2 million for reconstruction of Tylersville Road from the city limits to Gateway Avenue, an elevated water storage tank and a storm water improvement package. The commissioners supported the new elevated water storage tank to support economic development.

Tim Werdmann, the city’s executive director of Internal Services, said they just submitted their paperwork to the county last week, they also didn’t get project approval until December.

He said they are having to build a bigger tank than initially expected because of the projected growth in the area so the price almost doubled.

“We are currently waiting for approvals from the FAA due to the proximity of the planned elevated tank to the Butler County airport,” Werdmann said. “But we expect to be able to move forward sometime before the end of 2023.”

Fairfield is in the throes of redeveloping the Ohio 4 corridor and the commissioners earmarked $3 million for that effort. The city originally asked for $9 million for several projects. City Manager Scott Timmer said they are still going through the county ARPA protocols since their award was just announced in December.

He said they won’t be able to do a complete transformation of Ohio 4 but “the $3 million provided by the Butler County board of commissioners is a tremendous first step in improving Route 4. We have designated additional funds through the City’s Transformative Economic Development Fund to assist on projects once the $3 million has been utilized. An exact amount has not been specified as redevelopment is an evolving process.”

The commissioners also allotted $3 million for an emergency mental health crisis stabilization center and work is still underway to refine the project before a request for proposals can go out.

What to do with the remaining $7 million?

There are a host of projects below the $3 million mark in progress. With $7 million still on the table the commissioners have some more decisions to make. Commissioner Cindy Carpenter told the Journal-News she wants to give more money for parks.

Originally MetroParks requested $13 million for a whole host of things but by the time they presented to the commissioners in the summer of 2021 the amount dropped to $9.5 million. They wanted the $4.5 million for trails and $5 million to create scenic overlooks in nine parks in the rural reaches of the county.

The commissioners awarded $2.5 million to close gaps in the Great Miami River Trail system.

Carpenter said people are still feeling the ill effects of stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, like depression and anxiety and “I think supporting a park system throughout the county would target one of the most serious problems that this pandemic uncovered, our lack of quality parks throughout the county.”

She said she doesn’t want to give it all to the parks necessarily, but overall she’d like to give more money to some of the projects they have already agreed to fund.

Commissioners Don Dixon and T.C. Rogers said the money will be best spent helping the needy. Dixon said the individual communities are working to deal the homelessness problem and other issues exacerbated by poverty and they should help them with those efforts.

“We’ll be able to give the money directly to them to help them deal with projects they come up with, that fits into the entire plan for the county,” Dixon said.

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