Washtenaw County accepts $ 24.7 million in COVID stimulus spending. Why some said it’s not fair

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WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI – Washtenaw County leaders unanimously approved final approval to spend the first $ 24.7 million of its federal COVID-19 stimulus money Wednesday night amid a chorus of ‘accusations that funds have not given adequate priority to black communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

The first chunk of money from the $ 71.4 million US Rescue Plan (ARP) federal funds, coupled with a $ 5.8 million county dollar investment, will help kickstart an account program. children’s savings, to fund the weatherization of homes for low-income residents and to meet a dire need for child care in the county.

But the lightning rod for the majority of the roughly 30 residents who spoke to the Commissioners Wednesday night was broadband internet.

The bulk of the spending by elected leaders, OK’d, will spur an ambitious effort to connect some 3,300 homes in rural Washtenaw County that still lack the infrastructure for reliable and affordable internet access, a long-standing priority for Canadians. county leaders.

Some, like Sharon Township Supervisor Peter Psarouthakis, called the Zoom meeting from a dirt road, warning of roadblocks rural residents face when working from home, attending a virtual school, and accessing appointments. you get telehealth without broadband.

“It’s been almost 20 years now and we’re still stuck in the Dark Ages,” said Julie Helquist, another resident of Sharon Township, adding that her current tower-based service fails in bad weather or when It freezes.

$ 24.7 million in federal stimulus funding could help Washtenaw County with broadband, child care, and more.

But other residents have targeted the broadband investment, describing it as emblematic of what they called a contempt for predominantly black communities in Ypsilanti and the eastern part of the county.

The allowance smacked of “blatant systemic racism,” Ypsilanti activist Gail Summerhill said, adding that “black people have been the last forever.”

Others were more energetic.

“It’s sickening that you think broadband is more important than black lives,” said Trische Duckworth, activist and executive director of the nonprofit Survivors Speak.

The commissioners said they heard the concerns and pledged to redouble their efforts to hear feedback from residents on how the remaining $ 51.6 million in federal dollars should be spent.

Some also rebuffed accusations that broadband money meant putting the eastern parts of the county by the wayside.

“Ypsilanti Township and Augusta Township will benefit from these dollars,” said Commissioner Shannon Beeman, who represents Rural District 3, southwest of Ann Arbor. “These dollars affect all townships in Washtenaw County.”

As the meeting stretched into the night, other Commissioners expressed frustration at the hyper-emphasis on broadband spending.

District 5 Commissioner Justin Hodge reminded listeners that a vote no on the package also meant delaying funds for access to child care and the creation of a children’s savings account program which will initiate college education for low-income students and fight intergenerational poverty.

“Read the thing that we are actually voting on,” he said, adding that future allocations for affordable housing and other issues would also be delayed if the package is blocked.

Investing in broadband has transformed as commissioners have debated it over the past few months, and now includes an investment of $ 800,000 for financial assistance to households that cannot afford it. ‘access the Internet.

Some of the money from the US bailout will likely be put back on the table when the county receives dollars from the federal infrastructure bill, county administrator Gregory Dill added.

Investments in the first round of spending should be channeled to bring about “real structural change,” said District 9 Commissioner Katie Scott. “I don’t want them to be a band-aid. “

Another commissioner, Ricky Jefferson, representing District 6 covering Ypsilanti, had fun delaying the vote on funding. “We hear things we haven’t heard in our virtual meetings,” he said of the town halls each commissioner has held on how to spend the millions. “We still have time,” he added, referring to a 2024 deadline for using the money.

But, Barbara Fuller, chair of the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force, told commissioners, delaying a vote could mean starting from scratch on bids to complete broadband infrastructure work and being pushed to the end. back of the line for spooky materials.

Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to approve the spending, not stopping to discuss it further after responding to residents’ public comments.

The majority of the federal stimulus plan remains to be allocated. “We won’t be done tonight,” said District 2 board chairperson Sue Shink.

What did the ARP package include?

On Wednesday evening, the commissioners allocated $ 24,746,642 in federal funds and up to $ 5,785,500 in general county funds to a first round of initiatives.

Investments financed by silver are governed by rules issued by the US Department of the Treasury. A portion of ARP funds can also be used as “lost income” due to COVID-19, funding eligible government services.

Here is the breakdown of expenses and what is happening now.

A breakdown of the proposed spending plan for Washtenaw County, with funding coming from US bailout dollars and the county general fund.Image provided | Washtenaw County Council of Commissioners

Access to daycare: $ 2 million to address gaps in access to child care worsened by the closure of child care centers and after-school programs during the pandemic, as well as staff shortages. One million dollars will come from the ARP dollars and another million dollars from the general fund. A county request for proposals will be issued to find partners who can provide financial assistance and help residents navigate services.

Children’s savings account programs: $ 6.7 million for the development and launch of a children’s savings account program over the next four years. The money would help open college savings accounts, with a special investment in school districts in low-income communities, such as Ypsilanti Community Schools, Lincoln Consolidated Schools, and Whitmore Lake Public Schools. The funds will be managed by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. While all the children in the district will receive an account, the seed capital deposited will be $ 500 for students who qualify for a free and discounted lunch, compared to a much lower amount for those who do not. A total of $ 2.9 million will be spent through ARP funds with $ 3.79 million coming from the county general fund.

Broadband infrastructure and affordability: Approximately $ 15.5 million for broadband infrastructure expansion in areas of the county currently without high-speed Internet access, including $ 800,000 to help households access affordable high-speed Internet . The broadband task force and county administrators will begin contract negotiations this fall after issuing a request for proposals earlier this year, and final costs could fall below the allotted amount. ARP’s lost revenue funds could also be clawed back if future federal infrastructure funding fills the gaps. About $ 4.9 million was spent on ARP funds, $ 8.78 million on lost ARP revenue and an additional $ 1 million on general funds.

Weatherization: $ 1.4 million in ARP funds to expand an existing weatherization program for low-income households in Washtenaw County. This investment would expand eligibility for the program, which offers free insulation, airtightness and HVAC upgrades to lower energy bills.

Future ARP projects: Approximately $ 4.96 million of ARP lost revenue funds have been set aside for flexible spending on future projects and general services. The council of commissioners will discuss any allocation of this money at public meetings, according to council director of communications and operations Peter Lindeman.

For a detailed description of the funding program, go to this county note.

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