Berrien County commissioners learn more about ARPA funding

Published 2:55 pm Thursday, January 27, 2022

ST. JOSEPH – Berrien County Commissioners learned more details about American Rescue Plan Act funding requirements Thursday as they approved an application form area townships can fill out to get funds for rural broadband projects.

The idea to get an application form out to townships first came up at last week’s county board meeting. County Vice-Chairman Teri Freehling noted then that there are deadlines as to when ARPA projects need to be approved and funds spent.

Although the discussion last week noted that local municipalities could apply for a share of the county’s ARPA funding to fund a variety of infrastructure projects, the emphasis Thursday was solely on broadband.

County Development Director Dan Fette presented information about the rules to be followed at the board’s Committee of the Whole meeting earlier Thursday morning. He told commissioners that the nearly $30 million the county is getting can be spent to cover both lost revenue and pandemic costs as well as external projects.

“You’re currently debating how to use your funds and our sense is that expanding broadband is a high priority,” Fette said. “We suggest that you circulate the applications specifically for broadband then send out additional applications for other projects.”

County Administrator Brian Dissette said he knows of one township ready to submit an application as soon as today. He suspects that the county will have to lend a helping hand to some rural townships that don’t have the staff to complete an application on its own or to follow all the subsequent project requirements.

He and Fette emphasized the importance of acting to fund broadband projects now while companies are already in place to start working. They said getting rural broadband funding from the separate infrastructure bill approved late last year could be years away.

“We’re trying to create a little bit of momentum for local governments when it comes to broadband,” Dissette said. “We’re moving forward with broadband because we have townships interested and companies already working on it this year.”

Fette said county staff is working on related items such as establishing a review panel to score applications and providing guidance to municipalities getting funding so they can complete all the required paperwork and monitoring.

As for other possible ways to spend the county’s ARPA funding, Fette said the county could easily set aside as much as $20 million to $22 million to cover its own pandemic lost revenue.

Thursday’s meeting also featured another presentation on the status of the Berrien Bus program and public transportation. Fette reported that the Berrien Bus program which is now being operated by Berrien RESA is currently on sound financial footing after a rocky couple of years caused by the pandemic and the closing of the company that had run it.

Thursday, commissioners approved a resolution of intent to apply for state funding later this year. The 2023 budget calls for $955,322 in revenue and $915.000 in expenditures.

Other resolutions approved included applying for a marine safety grant application, extending an agreement with Kalamazoo County for Household Hazardous Waste Collection for another year, accepting coronavirus funds for the trial court and allowing the village of Eau Claire to annex two properties into the village.

The county board meeting concluded with a discussion of election issues including those raised by the recent redistricting decisions. Berrien County Clerk Sharon Tyler said she expects the 2022 election to be confusing for both voters and local clerks.

She noted that redistricting has now made Berrien County part of two state senate districts rather than one and three state representative districts instead of two. She said the state redistricting effort has also changed congressional district boundaries but she doesn’t think those might take effect this year.