Last year at this time, you could have sliced the tension inside the Merced County Board of Supervisors chamber with a hunting knife. Much of the anxiety was prompted by — or reactions to — pandemic-related mandates and directives coming from higher government, particularly the State of California. Much more was over fear and uncertainty for residents and the region as a whole.
Today, Public Health officials and supporters continue to cast dark warnings about potential closures ahead if the local community doesn’t increase vaccination rates and stay mindful of safety in the face of the new, so-called Delta Variant virus.
However, the mood inside Tuesday’s board meeting was noticeably upbeat, with some smiles bouncing from seat to seat on the dais.
After all, leaders were discussing what to do with an incredible cash windfall — millions and millions of dollars, or $53,936,085 to be exact. The county treasury already has half of it, or $26,968,042 and 50 cents. The other half is sure to come in May of 2022.
The funds are part of $65.1 billion federal initiative to help “state and local coronavirus recovery,” and it’s included in the overall American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). It’s intended to support the public heath response, address negative economic impacts, replace public sector revenue loss, provide pay for essential workers, and make necessary investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure in counties and some of their large cities across America. The money can’t be used for things like reserves, pension funds, outstanding debt or settlements.
For now, the eligible uses are purposely broad and “flexible” for a spending period that goes from March 3 of this year all the way to Dec. 31 of 2024. After that, the county will be unable to make any more spending requests linked to this particular pot of money. It’s important to note, however, that the final funding “rules” have not been published, and the feds are gathering and reviewing feedback from communities and groups for potential updates.
That said, on Tuesday the county’s administrative staff revealed to our elected leaders that they are putting a particular focus on one of the stated areas of eligible uses: Revenue Replacement. The feds have come up with a revenue-and-annual-growth-adjustment formula that allows counties to use the funding to replace lost revenues on programs and projects that were already ongoing before COVID-19 hit.
According to the county: “Based on actual revenue received in calendar year 2020, and “very conservative growth” projections for 2021, 2022 and 2023, it is projected that Merced County will be eligible to allocate all of the ARPA funding to the ‘revenue replacement’ category.
So on Tuesday, staff showed leaders a “flexible framework” on potential areas targeted for spending based on stated priorities of supervisors and their constituents in recent years. This includes:
- Homeless Services — Including the new Navigation Center in Merced and the county’s housing program. Funding target: $4 million.
- COVID-19 — Internal and external mitigation, vaccination and staffing support. Funding target: $4 million.
- Community Facilities — Parks, community halls, libraries. Funding target: $14.5 million
- Flood Control / Water — Black Rascal Flood Project, among others. Funding target: $7.2 million.
- Roads — Reconstruction and resurfacing in all areas of county. Funding target: $10 million
- Correctional facilities — Including Phase 1 and 2 of the John Latorraca Correctional Facility rehabilitation project. Funding target: $13.5 million.
“This is not all new stuff that we are coming up with,” Supervisor Scott Silveira. “Everything that is on the list (with the exception of covid support) two years ago was on a list somewhere. And for me, when you put this into ‘revenue replacement’ it gives us the most amount of flexibility to be able to put money where it’s needed. When you get into the other acceptable uses, now you are trying to get square pegs into round holes.”
Silveira also commented: “It’s kind of odd for government. Normally you have to jump through a billion hoops before you ever even get to find out when you potentially could get the funding. And this was done backward. This was passed, and the next thing you know, we got $27 million dollars sitting in our treasury, but with no actual rules on how to spend it. You have been clear on this: The final rule has not been released. … This is a framework.”
Board Chair Daron McDaniel further clarified, “This isn’t just a gift of money. This is revenue reimbursement. This is money that we have already planned out over the years to spend. It’s just coming to us all at once, packaged the way it is. So what I like most about the way I look at this is: This is what we have already had in the plan. This was the future. This is what we are looking at moving forward with a constituency that we all represent. The 300,000-plus people here in Merced County have elected us to this office to proceed in this direction. I appreciate the direction we are going because it still has our goals in mind.”
County CEO Jim Brown chimed in: “There was a time last year when we were looking at a potential sales tax on a few issues. … Covid didn’t provide us the opportunity to really educate and work with the community like we all wanted to but we shared with you at that time we had many challenges. We know we are going to need to work with some of your communities on some of them.”
He later added, “We are looking at the revenue replacement because it’s the most flexible way, but very candidly the formula they put together shows that you actually did not get as much revenue, and some things had to be shifted. Some of this is moving forward on projects. … Preliminarily, we are close to $100 million on projects that are in the cue — facilities, infrastructure, and everything. And to try and bring it down, things had to come off the table. I know there are going to be more conversations going forward as you start to identify certain projects.”
Brown affirmed that some funding issues might come before this year’s final fiscal budget, expected in the weeks to come. He also put in an apparent pitch for ARPA funding to support the local correctional facility.
“Grand jury reports have been out there,” he said regarding the need for upgrades to the John Latorraca site. “That’s a project with a very clear directive from the board to go get done.”
Brown added that the $13.5 million would only go to support the project that includes $40 million in grants within Phase 1 and an estimated $50 to $75 million for Phase 2. The Covid money would not help the county avoid issuing debt in the matter, he suggested, but it would move services along while reducing the amount needed to be borrowed.
Supervisor Lloyd Pareira supported the idea of focusing the funding on corrections. “The grand jury has recognized that we have some improvements we have to make, and this money will go along way in completing those improvements,” he said. “That’s one of my goals since I became a supervisor was not only protecting correctional officers who are working in those facilities, but also the people who are living there. Some people make choices that get them into a spot they really wish they weren’t in. But just because you are there, doesn’t mean you are less than the rest of society.”
Pareira also made a request to his colleagues with regard to money available for small town community projects in rural areas.
“My district is unique,” he said. “Of the 56,000 people or so that I represent, only 5,500 of them are in an incorporated city. … All six cities [in the county] got their own allocations of funding … We have unincorporated communities that in normal circumstances would be towns or cities but they didn’t get any allocations from these programs, and some of these areas where we are looking at parks and community halls or whatever, I’m just asking my colleagues to at least listen to what I have to say when we take care of those areas.”
Recently, the City of Merced made headlines after leaders said they would seek input from residents on how to spend the $27 million they received from ARPA funding as one of the qualifying cities in the program.
On Tuesday, only Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza mentioned the idea of having a special public meeting to discuss the county’s ARPA funding goals.
“We need to have at least one public meeting to discuss this,” he told his colleagues, “in the afternoon, or after 5 p.m. so we can get more interest from the community.”
As for the public on Tuesday, a few members of the Delhi community stood up and spoke about Covid funding and the need for more parks and gathering centers in the small town. But that was at the start of the meeting. When the ARPA funding item came up, there was only one speaker who took the podium.
County resident Peng Cha Vang said she took notice of the $13.5 million targeted for ARPA funding in the staff’s “framework” model.
Said Vang: “That’s more than 20 percent of the funds and I’m concerned because these funds are suppose to help the people for relief from COVID-19, and I don’t want the funds to be helping prisons, but to be funding community centers, new parks, new boys and girls clubs. … I want these funds to help the community to prevent people from going to prison, not the funds supporting prisons. I don’t want to see young people in prisons. I don’t want to see our community in prisons. I want to see our community thriving. I want the money invested in community centers, and things that will help the people.”
Vang called for a homeless shelter that is specifically for those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and “plus,” often referred to as LGBTQ+. She also called for more funding to support youth jobs, affordable housing and help people with medical expenses incurred during the pandemic. She said salary compensation should be focused on the lowest paid essential workers.
Vang added: “Give attention to the undocumented population. They didn’t get a stimulus check. Many are living in below poverty conditions. … I’m asking you to remember the undocumented because Trump and Biden didn’t remember them.”
Despite the discussion, no ARPA funding decisions were made on Tuesday, except the board’s unanimous approval of a budget transfer in the amount of $537,665 for the recoupment of Fiscal Year 2020-21 ARPA eligible expenses. These included Covid-related payments and some related community facility projects that were installed over the past year.
Also Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved two resolutions authorizing and directing Merced County Emergency Rental and Utility Assistance Round 1 and 2 funding to the State Department of Housing and Community Development.
These fully funded federal resources will be administered on behalf of Merced County to residents through the state’s “Housing is Key” program.
The program is being transitioned to the state in an effort to streamline the process and create a single program for Merced County residents.
The program will continue to assist eligible applicants who are at or below 80 percent of area median income who have been impacted by COVID-19. Eligible recipients include:
- Renter households within Merced County;
- Those who meet income eligibility determination;
- Individuals who incurred significant costs, or experienced other financial hardship during or due directly or indirectly to the COVID-19 pandemic, and
- Those who may be at risk of experiencing homelessness or housing instability from issues such as past-due utilities or past-due rent.
The state will run the program beginning Aug. 11. Current pre-screened applications already submitted to the Central Valley Opportunity Center (CVOC) will still be processed through Sept. 30.
Beginning on Aug. 11 of this week, all new applications for rental and/or utility assistance not already scheduled with CVOC will need to be submitted to the CA COVID-19 Rent Relief Program online here:https://housing.ca.gov/covid_rr/index.html
(For additional information, including eligibility and application help, you can call the state’s COVID-19 Rent Relief Call Center at 1-833-430-2122).