The Waseca County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution on Sept. 7 to approve the preliminary allocation of more than $3.6 million of federal funding expected through the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA).
With years to spend the money, only half of it having arrived in a first installment in June, and nearly half a million dollars unallocated due to inadequate information on a number of allocation categories, the county is likely to see significant impacts as a result of the ARPA funds. The funds were sent to local governments across the country, as the most recent federal financial response to COVID-19.
Though 10 categories were named for funding by county staff, the biggest were water resources and broadband infrastructure, both of which are slated to receive $1 million, followed by tourism advocacy and resilience, slated to receive $500,000.
The reason this allocation plan was only preliminary, said County Administrator Michael Johnson, was partly that the bureaucratic infrastructure around the ARPA bill, including the way it’s interpreted by local governments, is extremely complicated and requires significant time and planning before money is usually spent. Plus, the county is watching the state government field applications for funding to local municipalities, as the state of Minnesota may be able to partially match funds spent on projects like rural broadband.
“We don’t want to spend more money than we would theoretically have to,” Johnson said.
Perhaps most important, though, he said, is that the county seeks greater buy-in and feedback from the community regarding how the money should be spent. And since the county has until the end of 2024 to spend ARPA funds, there’s really no excuse not to ensure the residents of Waseca County make themselves heard and their priorities understood.
What the preliminary allocation represents, Johnson said, is “a kind of roll-up summary of our high-level thinking of how we should prioritize spending.” While the amounts spent under each category are anticipated by county staff to change over time, he said, the categories themselves are not anticipated to change significantly.
The reason broadband infrastructure and water resources receive so much funding, Johnson noted, is that they are so popular and so necessary within Waseca County. With more than 85% of the county unserved or under-served, in terms of what the state of Minnesota considers “high-speed internet,” and jobs and education rapidly shifting to an increasingly online or online-only setting, there is real desire among residents to invest heavily in its implementation.
Water resources, while perhaps less obvious as an imperative for Waseca County, is in fact hugely significant for an agricultural community consisting of many individual farmers, as well as Conagra’s huge vegetable processing facility, soon to be replaced by a new gigantic $250 million vegetable processing facility.
While Johnson said it’s hard to predict when the money will start being spent — a resurgence of COVID could lead to funds being rapidly allocated toward public health, for example — he predicts it won’t be until at least spring 2022 before “we really see those dollars spent in earnest.”
“You can’t dig fiber in the winter,” he added.
What is most important for Waseca County residents to understand, Johnson said, is that they can and should reach out to their commissioners to give insight into how the $3.6 million in federal funding should be spent. It’s almost impossible for county staff to make decisions as cogently as they would like, he said, without hearing from the public exactly how and where they were affected by the pandemic, and how investment of ARPA funding can help.
“Bottom line is ‘We want to know and hear those things,’” Johnson said. “It’s community money, not county money.”