County commissioners embark on spending spree with COVID relief funds

By Ralph Echtinaw

St. Louis hasn’t decided how to use its share of the coronavirus relief money currently being slung around the country ($760,000), but Gratiot County government has already spent 29 percent of the $7.9 million it’s been allocated.

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 is a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill signed by President Joe Biden on March 11 to accelerate the country’s recovery from the economic and health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing recession, per Wikipedia. 

Virtually every township, village, city and county in the country gets a slice of that $1.9-trillion pie. St. Louis hasn’t received the first installment of its early Christmas present yet, but the county received almost $4 million in May and its five commissioners have been busy doling it out.

To date, commissioners have made the following commitments:

$405,000 over three years for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a program that advocates for children.

$251,000 for Motorola radios for county law enforcement.

$705,000 to sheriff’s office to reimburse it for virus-related costs.

$94,000 for sheriff’s office laptops.

$5,000 for video conferencing in the jail.

$68,000 for email upgrades.

$20,000 on computer server expansion.

$30,000 for a jail inmate communication system upgrade.

$226,000 for Alma Water main on State Street.

$500,000 for Ithaca’s lead pipe replacement.

$300,000 to $500,000 to upgrade the heating and cooling system in the health department building.

There was unanimous agreement on all those except the last one. Commissioners John Lemmermann, Sam Smith and George Bailey voted yes. Chairman Chuck Murphy and Commissioner Jan Bunting voted no.

And the spending spree isn’t over. “I believe St. Louis is coming for some water mains, and we’re looking to put some money in the airport,” Murphy said via email.

St. Louis City Council members talked last week about what they might spend the city’s $760,000 on.

The tentative decision was to use the money for water line replacement work, which has to be done soon anyway. But City Manager Kurt Giles may ask the county commission to cut off a chunk of the county’s pot of gold and share it with St. Louis.

“I can confirm St. Louis’ interest in helping utilize ARPA funding in the most beneficial ways possible,” Giles said via email. “We understand the county commissioners continue to explore all options for making the best use of available funding in the county. Replacement of aging water distribution facilities continues to be one of our top priorities. At this point though, I’m uncertain about the timing of a when a request will be presented.”

Another possible use for the money is to help the St. Louis Area Fire Department pay for a new pumper truck. This was discussed at the Nov. 10 Fire Board meeting (see related story), and supervisors from Pine River, Bethany and Jasper townships spoke favorably about using some of their ARPA funds on a fire truck.

That would have to be approved by the respective township boards, but as Pine River Township Supervisor Kevin Beeson put it, his township has no infrastructure needs on which to use the money.

Fire Chief Bill Coty said a new pumper could cost more than $500,000, and the fire department has $386,000 in its new equipment fund. So any help the townships and St. Louis can deliver will be appreciated.

Here’s what each township in the fire district gets from the ARPA pile of money:

Pine River: $231,000

Bethany: $141,000

Jasper: $119,000.

Half the money should arrive soon. The other half is supposed to be delivered next year.

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