Berrien County commissioners discuss ARPA funds

Published 1:38 pm Thursday, January 20, 2022

ST. JOSEPH – Berrien County Commissioners are speeding up the process of how they can share some of the county’s $30 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds with local municipalities. Commissioners directed County Administrator Brian Dissette to develop an application form for local government leaders to fill out.

The matter came up at the end of Thursday’s county board meeting. County Board Vice-Chairwoman Teri Freehling raised the question in other business at the end of the meeting. She chaired the meeting in Chairman McKinley Elliott’s absence.

Freehling noted the county board has not yet approved the new strategic plan for the county, which is supposed to guide county decisions in spending the $30 million in ARPA funding. Local and county governments must spend the money they’re getting by the end of 2024.

“I’m asking if commissioners are interested in working in parallel on this in partnership with municipalities and organizations,” she said. “The reason I ask is that I don’t know if we will have the chance to discuss the full strategic plan for another month. If we ask for applications now, we can have them ready to look at along with the plan.”

Freehling asked for and received consensus from the rest of the board to have Dissette develop an application form. That form will be presented formally to the board next Thursday and then be sent out to local municipalities.

“There is a growing sense of anxiety that the end of 2024 is a hard deadline to have projects done,” Dissette said. “The lesson we learned from the CARES Act was to not get in the position where we have to rush at the end.”

Dissette said he initially planned to have the county board adopt the new strategic plan and then roll out applications to local governments but he now thinks the plan and the application form should be done at the same time.

“The application form gives local governments an opportunity for input, transparency and collaboration and it gives us the pulse of what the needs are in Berrien County,” Freehling said.

She pointed out that not only does the money have to be spent by the end of 2024, there’s also the matter of finding contractors to do the work.

“This helps us start the discussion and we are in competition with other counties and even other states for contractors,” she said.

One of the projects several townships have mentioned pursuing is expanding broadband internet service to rural and underserved areas. Commissioner Ezra Scott said he’d like to not only set aside the $6 million consultant Jim Hettinger suggested for rural broadband but also another $2 million to connect all county buildings.

“I’ll go on record that I don’t want $6 million but $8 million,” Scott said. “$6 million would go to residents and $2 million to connect all county facilities and infrastructure to bring them up to 21st Century standards. We have county road garages that don’t have good internet service.”

Dissette said he expects that “multiple” townships will be asking for county funding to help them improve broadband service but also thinks local governments are looking at spending ARPA funds on other projects. He said he expects to see some “creative” projects approached such as for water and sewer infrastructure, parks and housing.

“The only way we will find out is if we push out this application form,” he said. “By the time local units of government decide what they want to do, we are still talking multiple months … The sooner we open the process, the sooner we can see projects completed.”

Although they agreed informally to have the application form developed, commissioners appear to still disagree over what they want to see in the new strategic plan. Commissioner Mamie Yarbrough said she wants the board to have a retreat to hash out differences and make sure the money is spent in a fair way.

She questioned why the county or local governments would spend money on broadband when the federal government is also putting money into that effort.

Commissioner Mike Majerek asked if it would be good to have an open meeting with municipal leaders to talk about the process. Dissette said contact has already been made with local leaders and he thinks some are ready to apply for funds from the county.

“It’s not going to be real tough, if there’s a green light to proceed we will get a response,” he said.