Amherst County has received the first half of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, a total of $3,069,450, and the board of supervisors will have upcoming decisions to make on how to spend much of the money.
Stacey McBride, the county’s director of finance, told supervisors June 15 the county has the first portion of funding in the bank and can get started on projects and measures under interim guidance from the U.S. Treasury.
“We want to start thinking strategically about what we can do with it,” McBride said to the board.
The $6 million coming to the county government is part of the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package that went into effect in early March. Amherst County Public Schools officials said the division is set to receive $7 million in ARP funds and Amherst Town Manager Sara Carter said the town is poised to get more than $2 million.
The money covers measures that address negative economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, replaces public sector revenue loss, premium pay for essential workers and water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, according to McBride’s report to supervisors.
McBride explained ways the ARP money is different from the $5.5 million received from the separate Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Stability (CARES) Act.
“We’ll have to do some more reporting straight to the federal government and not the state,” McBride said. “We’re going to have to provide a status report to the federal government.”
The first report to the federal government is due in late August and another is planned in late October, according to McBride. The money must be spent or obligated by December 2024 and all has to be fully expended by Dec. 31, 2026, she said.
“It gives you a wide range of time,” McBride told supervisors.
The county can choose to aid businesses and nonprofits, as was done with a portion of the CARES money, and the premium pay to essential county workers is up to $13 an hour extra, McBride said.
The ARP money does not cover local matches for any other federal program, economic development and general infrastructure projects such as roads and bridges, non-public safety payroll unless it can be proven to mitigate COVID-19, debt payments, legal settlements, deposits to “rainy day” reserve funds and general infrastructure, unless covered with revenue loss, according to the report.
Firefly Fiber Broadband, a subsidiary of Nelson County-based Central Virginia Electric Cooperative, recently submitted a proposal to Amherst County to expand a fiber-optic network across the county to reach every location considered unserved by reliable high-speed internet. The county’s share in the potential project, if approved, would be $3.1 million to cover the match for grants Firefly hopes to receive, County Administrator Dean Rodgers has said.
“They propose fiber-optic cable to every home in the county except for those in the Comcast-designated area,” of Amherst County, Rodgers said of Firefly’s plan.
The county has made efforts to inform and motivate Comcast to submit a proposal to expand broadband coverage in the area it serves, Rodgers said. The mindset is Comcast, as an internet service provider, can further build its reach to help achieve a desired a goal of 100% broadband service in the county.
Rodgers said if Comcast doesn’t submit a proposal, he proposes approaching Firefly about going into the Comcast service area and bringing competition.
“We’re doing everything we can to give Comcast the opportunity to thrive here,” Rodgers said during the board’s June 15 meeting.
Rodgers said Firefly officials plan to apply for grants in the fall.
“Their buildout plan stretches across the next four years,” Rodgers said of Firefly’s planned $30 million-plus project.
Firefly plans to invest $22.5 million and the proposal also includes $5.5 million from a state Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) or any other state or federal grant source.
“Broadband is a big push right now for the nation as a whole,” Ayers said in addressing ways to spend ARP money.
Supervisors also recently committed to using $1 million from the ARP stream to the Amherst County Service Authority for needed water and sewer needs.
Supervisor David Pugh, one of the three board members who serves on the service authority’s governing board, noted old utility lines that need replacing.
“I know a lot of our infrastructure is aging,” said Pugh. “Much of it is 60 to 70 years old.”
McBride said the county could also potentially do a “salary switch,” which was done with some of the CARES money, that covers public safety salaries with federal money for a period and sets the funding initially budgeted aside for future spending decisions.
Also during the meeting, the board voted 3-1, with Moore opposed and member Tom Martin absent, to renew the county’s medical insurance coverage through Piedmont Community Health Plan for fiscal years 2021-22 and 2022-23.
Moore said she voted against renewal because some employees a few years ago publicly spoke against going with the Piedmont coverage and she felt the county owed it to employees to seek other options.
“I remember the angst of the employees,” Moore said.