From Brookfield to Ashland, communities have a wide range of uses for American Rescue Plan funds.
[Editor’s Note: This is part of a continuing series of reports on the various ways local governments are using pandemic relief funds and making decisions about their post-pandemic economy. Click HERE for our first report.]
Local governments across the state are starting to receive their funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
The sweeping pandemic relief bill passed Congress in March with no Republican votes, and it provided about $2 billion for Wisconsin municipalities in addition to $2.5 billion for the state government. State officials and organizations are offering resources for local officials to help plan how they are going to utilize their federal funds.
The City of Wauwatosa announced a vaccine prize drawing to reward its residents for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, and the program is funded by some of the money the city received from ARPA. Starting July 23, vaccinated residents who enter a drawing are eligible to win different prizes such as hotel/dinner packages or gift cards to local businesses.
Stevens Point plans to use the $2.7 million it is receiving from the federal government to make up for lost revenue, Mayor Mike Wiza said.
City officials are also looking into improving infrastructure. Although the city doesn’t have many broadband issues that some rural areas are experiencing, officials are looking into using the funds to improve critical utility infrastructure that they previously haven’t had the funds to repair.
The city’s revenue took a big hit due to the pandemic. It lost revenue in areas like the public pool, rentals of lodge facilities, and the room tax received from hotels. Wiza said the funding from these sectors was “basically non-existent.” The city also had to cover expenses for employees to be able to work from home with the technology they needed, in addition to making sure they had options for paid sick leave.
Wiza said local leaders are “85-90% certain” of the projects they want to implement, but everything is still being discussed and decided upon. Initially, he found the federal guidelines for the funding to be restrictive.
“I would have liked a little more latitude in what we could use it for, because each municipality might have different needs,” he said.
Although Stevens Point doesn’t need funding to improve broadband, Wiza noted surrounding rural areas are devoting their funding to this purpose. Now that the federal government has outlined more details on how the funds can be used, he and other city officials are making sure they get the best usage out of every dollar they receive.
“There’s never enough money to go around, and [with] all of the devastating effects of this pandemic on individual families, on employers, and on municipalities, I think it’s in our best interest to make sure that we utilize these funds where they’re going to be the most impactful,” Wiza said. “That’s, I think, a responsibility of every single municipality in the country.”
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Brookfield officials submitted the city’s funding request just days before the state’s deadline, and officials are centering their focus on making up for lost revenue. Most of the city’s $4.1 million will replace the almost $3 million hotel-room tax deficit, according to Brookfield Finance Director Robert Scott.
Brookfield also incurred additional losses from a decrease in building permits and investment income. However, Scott acknowledged many cities experienced more negative effects from the pandemic.
“Fortunately, in some respects, we didn’t incur a ton of additional costs. Brookfield is a relatively affluent community, so some of the uses that other communities might be using the funds for from an economic recovery standpoint really aren’t applicable for us,” Scott said.
Scott articulated that this funding is just the first step in getting Brookfield residents and Wisconsinites back on their feet after the economic damage caused by COVID-19.
“$4 million, it’s not like it’s a small amount of money, but comparatively, we’re not getting the same amount as some other communities, particularly in the Milwaukee area. And then there’s obviously a lot more assistance that will come through the state, particularly for businesses and so on, and so we are encouraging people to make sure they’re aware of those programs, either if they already exist or as potential new programs come out to help them further recover,” he said.
Brookfield was not the only city to cut it close. Across the state, 860 local governments still had yet to submit their applications three days prior to the deadline. Fitchburg, Wisconsin Rapids, and Menomonie were among the larger municipalities that waited until the last minute. The day before the deadline, Wisconsin Department of Revenue’s press release said that number dropped to over 300. According to Mike Koles from the Wisconsin Towns Association, eight communities did not apply before the deadline.
Competitive Wisconsin hosted a summit on June 23 for local government officials to learn about how their municipalities can spend their ARPA funds. The League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Towns Association, and the Wisconsin Counties Association directors all spoke on different avenues for municipalities to explore, encouraging them to do the research beforehand to maximize their return on investment.
Ashland Mayor Deb Lewis attended a number of these seminars and took the input to heart. She specifically referenced a piece of advice from Mark O’Connell, executive director of the Wisconsin Counties Association, at the Competitive Wisconsin summit about making sure that this one-time payment creates the biggest return on the government’s investment.
“These dollars will not be getting paid back by us but by our children and grandchildren,” O’Connell said.
Lewis thought this point stressed the importance of putting the funds toward something thoughtful and meaningful in the community.
“Certainly we’re not going to use it all to fill holes in the budget. We’d like to do something in the community that would help improve our life here,” she said. Another takeaway she got from these seminars is to not be impulsive but rather to go slowly and spend time learning what the money can and cannot be applied toward in these next three years.
The City of Ashland actually saved money in some aspects during the past year. With city employees meeting fully online during the pandemic, they saved money on travel and gas to attend different trainings and conferences that are normally in-person.
The city is still in the process of calculating its revenue loss from pandemic-related shortfalls like a water bill late-fee moratorium and receiving less income from public parks and related programming.
Lewis said the economy was resilient in terms of the businesses in the community. However, the service industry with restaurants, bars, and some hotels struggled, she said. She did say that federal relief aided in keeping these small businesses afloat.
“For the most part, people were bolstered by the COVID relief funds for businesses that came through,” she said. The biggest impact, though, has been on the people on the margins, according to Lewis. The city saw a higher demand for social services, and housing became an issue for some as the pandemic took its financial toll.
The city has a few projects in mind to put their over $800,000 payment to use, but Lewis said these ideas still have to be reviewed by the city council before they are made public.