How two counties are spending it

Hudson Valley counties have received between $9 and $75 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding from the federal government. But how the counties are divvying up their federal windfall, and their methodology for bringing the public into that decision-making, has varied.

The federal funds are delivered in two tranches: half were paid out in May 2021, with the other half to be distributed to counties in May. Each local government can decide how to spend those dollars, in a relatively short period of time — allocations must be made by Dec. 31, 2024, and funds must be spent by year end 2026.

There are other guidelines, but some officials have been surprised by the general freedom with which the money can be spent.

“I’ve never seen this type of aid come down with a lack of restrictions. It twisted on everyone’s minds to get their feet under it and be careful in their spending priorities,” said Christopher Kelly, Ulster Deputy County Executive.

As a result, not all of the funds have been earmarked for COVID-related or public assistance-type projects. Putnam County proposed using $400,000 to improve a golf course, for example, and Dutchess allocated more than $12 million for upgrades to its minor league baseball stadium in the name of economic development.

Both are considered legitimate uses of federal aid as counties have two general buckets of money from which to allocate funds: one is a general pot to combat negative economic impacts from COVID and includes assistance to small businesses, premium pay to essential workers, and infrastructure investments in water, sewer and broadband; the second category, “revenue loss funds,” can be used for a broader range of programs. Each county automatically received $10 million in revenue loss funds, but could apply to receive even more of this flexible type of funding. 

Given these broad parameters, each county is spending ARP money in different ways, and using multiple means to determine how to allocate it.

“There are a pretty wide variety of approaches,” said Stephen Acquario, Executive Director and General Counsel of the New York State Association of Counties. “Many have used public outreach through online surveys, hired consultants to reach out to the public including focus groups, and legislative hearings where the public was invited to provide details. Most counties also surveyed their departments and agencies to identify unmet needs that meet the treasury rule requirement for eligible projects.”

For an idea of how the money is being spent in the region, Times Union Hudson Valley examined how Dutchess and Ulster counties are divvying up their respective $57 million and $34.5 million in ARP funding.

Ulster County: $15 million allocated, $19.4 million to go

Biggest items: Mental health and addiction recovery services, trails

Ulster County initially created an ARP spending plan in June 2021 to aid small businesses, mental health services, infrastructure, and housing. Following the November election, in which eight new legislators were added to the Democratic-majority legislature, and a pause to focus on the county budget, Ulster’s ARP spending slowed but then resumed in February.

Allocations to date include $5 million for mental health and addiction recovery services, including $3 million for a 24/7 community crisis response hub and respite housing. The county is also considering new projects as they arise. For example, Kelly said the legislature is purchasing the Elizabeth Manor, an old boarding house in Kingston for emergency housing.

“When that came up, and we felt it would hit a significant part of our emergency housing issue in Ulster County, that felt like an appropriate use,” said Kelly.

In March, the legislature approved $1 million to fund a second round of small business bailouts and $2 million for outdoor recreation trails. However, the small business assistance piece received some pushback from legislators who argued that the funds were a handout that wouldn’t help businesses stay open. The March 16 resolution ultimately passed 18-5, but a handful of legislators suggested taking more time to see if this is the best way to spend funds.

“This is our first time doing it, so we learn as we go along,” said Democrat legislator Eve Walter. “It’s a challenge because we’re not weighing one idea against another. We’re weighing one idea against nothing.”

Walter said in an ideal…

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