Wadena County commissioners set the planning in motion for using American Rescue Plan funds with a work session scheduled with their next regular board meeting Tuesday, Oct. 5. The ideas are wide open—as long as they’re within the guidelines.
The county will receive $2,657,568. The funds are available through 2024. The goal: take time in deciding and benefit the communities as much as possible.
“There’s no rush. We don’t have to have $2.7 (million) spent tomorrow,” said county auditor-treasurer Heather Olson on Sept. 14.
Commissioner Murlyn Kreklau brought a recommendation to the board Tuesday, Sept. 21, in which he wanted the board to discuss, at a work session rather than a regular meeting, what were eligible uses, what are the current needs and what areas should be a priority based on certain criteria he listed.
“Do they benefit the entire county; are there other grants or funding available for the request; do they create ongoing expense or cost for the county; are there long term benefits; and are they thoughtful and transformational,” Kreklau said. “And I believe that speed is not the goal.”
Kreklau said he spent time talking with other counties and with others at the recent AMC Conference about this ARP topic, which other Wadena County Commissioners also noted they discussed. While others seemed to be ahead of Wadena County, according to Kreklau, he said they were all using work sessions to consider ideas. He hoped this county would do the same.
The board agreed that some funding may be used in the community to help businesses and some will need to be used for county expenses or improvements. Commissioner Jon Kangas emphasized his desire to use the funding less on the wants and more on the needs. The commission will be taking requests from department heads and hopefully hearing ideas from the community.
All were in favor of the motion to discuss the topic further during a work session, except Commission Chair Sheldon Monson. He felt that the topics could just as well be discussed at the regular county board meeting since the decisions would end up coming back there anyway.
Kreklau described this work session as a buffer to help them avoid making abrupt decisions as they arise.
During the Sept. 14 meeting a set of five ideas for ARP funds came from the Human Services department:
Two new vehicles: The department has high caseloads and employees transport less people together due to social distancing. They can use their own personal vehicle, though not to transport clients, or borrow a car from other departments. The board approved up to $35,000 for a new car. Commissioner Jon Kangas voted against. Commissioners also approved a replacement vehicle on Sept. 7 and had decided against a second vehicle at the time. The cars were not in the department’s budget.
Income maintenance overtime costs: A recertification process for clients is anticipated after federal waivers on certain requirements are removed. These were not required during the pandemic. The overtime hours to recertify clients will be between January and June 2022. The board did not take action on any of the remaining ideas.
Camera and intercom: An exterior camera and intercom system would add another way to communicate with clients when the building needs to be closed.
Social worker: An existing social worker position would work with the county’s five school districts on truancy. Human Services director Jennifer Westrum said the increase in truancy cases is related to the pandemic. A county truancy team was also established in fall 2020. The increase could impact child protection cases, out of home placements and referrals to the county attorney’s office and community corrections.
Training: The online college program would be for two social workers to become licensed alcohol and drug counselors, which is required for comprehensive use assessments starting in June 2022. Westrum said the rule change is not due to the pandemic. The program is for nine months and both employees will apply for scholarships. If the scholarship funds are approved, the county would receive money back. The assessments help people in jail, clients with child protection services and people waiting for treatment in emergency rooms. Olson said more research on the ARP guidelines is needed.
The commissioners largely discussed the Human Services ideas, though the HVAC systems at the courthouse and Public Health, upgrading water and sewer at the fairgrounds, cell phone bills for community corrections and ADA updates were mentioned. The county could also look at applying funds towards revenue or gas tax losses. Just the HVAC issues alone could potentially eat up the entirety of the ARP funds.
“There’s a lot of broad uses that we can use it for for the public too, I mean supports for households, small businesses, impacted industries, we could dedicate it for broadband services to help people be able to work at home, … we can support job training to benefit our residents and we can also use it for … affordable housing development,” Kangas said.
Commissioner Bill Stearns and Kangas said requests from departments could come simply due to the federal funding available. Department leaders will learn more about the guidelines from Olson to then share ideas.
Townships can apply for other federal funds; applications are due on Oct. 4. The Minnesota Association of Townships has resources for spending the funds on their website.