Three projects first to get Butler County pandemic money

The Butler County commissioners agree to spend some of their $74.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to demolish the Middletown Paperboard building that was ruined by a massive fire in 2020. NICK GRAHAM  / STAFF

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The Butler County commissioners agree to spend some of their $74.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to demolish the Middletown Paperboard building that was ruined by a massive fire in 2020. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

The Butler County commissioners will begin awarding some of the $75 million coronavirus funding next week with three projects, countywide broadband, township roads and Middletown’s Paperboard site.

The commissioners have been doing their own research for months, sifting through dozens of funding requests. They talked publicly about awarding the money for the first time Monday and agreed to hear more detailed information about the three projects next week and pass funding resolutions the week after.

Commissioner T.C. Rogers, whose idea it was to award the first batch beginning next week, balked a bit about having more presentations.

“We all have spent a lot of time looking at this, if you want presentations with everybody to come in again you’re looking at fall...,” Rogers said. “I’m just trying to get going here.”

Commissioner Don Dixon has been saying for months he needed “to know who, what, when, where” on many of the proposals because they were shy on details. He said they are responsible for the money and how it is spent so they need to know as much about them as possible.

County Administrator Judi Boyko also said it was a good idea.

“I would suggest that as well, because the proposals that were given to you in August, some of them are very detailed, some of them are very clear,” Boyko said. “Some of them are what if, this is what we’re thinking about if this money is a reality now for some of these projects I think it behooves the commissioners to ensure that these recipients are really, really sure and clear on what their project is, what their outcomes want to be and what your outcomes what to be. But I think even more importantly and equally they understand the severity of following the rules in spending this money.”

ExploreButler County communities starting to spend $155.6M in coronavirus relief

The county received an eclectic array of funding requests totaling nearly $148 million, including economic development projects, help for the homeless, propping up small businesses, park and bike trail expansion and a new county morgue to name a few. They range in price from $24 million for new advanced aviation and manufacturing training centers in Middletown and Hamilton to $125,000 for healthcare worker training.

Boyko said in all the county funding requests total about $200 million because they received other proposals outside those they held work sessions on last summer. She told the commissioners after going through each of their priority lists they all agreed on about 19 projects but the level of funding was not identical for some of the projects. And there is majority support for another eight projects and or categories of projects.

It appears — a couple projects didn’t have hard costs attached to them — the commissioner could at least $10 million short on the projects they all support.

The commissioners will invite Middletown officials and Butler County Engineer Greg Wilkens to their meeting next week to discuss Paperboard demolition and roads respectively and Boyko will go over the request for proposals she is preparing for the broadband project. The internet project has an estimate of $10 million, Paperboard $2.4 million and Boyko said the three commissioners differed on how much to spend helping townships with their roads, one said $5 million, another $9 million and the third didn’t assign a cost.

After the federal windfall was announced Commissioner Cindy Carpenter began canvassing the county, listening to the wants and needs of communities and groups. She released her plan for ARPA and other funding sources earlier this year totaling $98 million, including almost $20 million from the general fund and some other COVID-19 resources the county received.

She told her fellow commissioners she want to hash out the projects at a work session and create a budget.

“Here’s my concern with spending money before you’ve made a budget, everybody wants the most and then you’ve got to look at the remaining pot of money and now what do I do with distributing this out,” Carpenter said. “I think we need to do the whole budget at one time because it might be there has to be a little give in the Middletown Paperboard, there has to be a little give in the broadband. When you lay everything out I don’t want to be stuck at the end and saying okay well we’re out of the money so the projects that were lower down get nothing.”

Dixon told the Journal-News setting a budget now is premature. He said they need to meet again with the people asking for the money because he might like their concepts at this point but could change his mind about a given project after hearing the details.

Butler Rural Electric Cooperative and Cincinnati Bell submitted a $3.9 million to bring high-speed broadband to about 2,700 Butler County rural locations and Oxford also urged the commissioners to support countywide internet access.

Former county administrator and BREC engineering manager Charlie Young said “oh wow, great” when the Journal-News told him about the commissioners’ decision.

“I’m thrilled for Butler County,” Young said. “I think this is a great opportunity to expand broadband throughout the county and I think this is a great and very appropriate use of ARPA funding.”

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