Millions of dollars for relief: City and county leaders discuss potential spending of stimulus money

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TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – Over a week ago, the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced the launch of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds.

The funds will provide a total of $350 billion to be dispersed to these localities as a part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

In recent days, guidance as to how the funds can be spent has become more clear and now county and city mayors across Northeast Tennessee are weighing in on their plans for the funds. While most mayors do not have any solid plans in place, they were able to share where they plan on starting with the funds.

The goal of these funds is to support the immediate pandemic response, bring back jobs, and lay the groundwork for a strong and equitable recovery.

According to a fact sheet released by the Department of the Treasury regarding these funds, there are some pre-set guidelines regarding how the funds can be used.

The funds can be used to support public health expenditures, address negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency, including economic harms to workers, households, small businesses, impacted industries, and the public sector, replace lost public sector revenue, provide premium pay for essential workers, and invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.

A big part of supporting the public health effort is funding mass vaccination events, something Sullivan County has been doing since the start of the pandemic.

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said after receiving further guidance, he believes the first steps in terms of spending the money will be reimbursing the losses incurred in the health department due to vaccination events as well as providing pay increases for first responders who have worked tirelessly through this pandemic — both of which fall under the allowed uses of the funds.

“We’ve incurred tremendous costs in the vaccine programs that we’ve done and the county has taken the brunt of that cost. So even though our health department operates a lot on grants, we’ll look at mainly how to reimburse that,” Venable said.

While those will be the first topics for the funds, they’ll be far from the last. Sullivan County is expected to receive a little over $30 million dollars in funds. The first payment will be roughly $17 million.

Local governments will receive funds in two payments, with 50% provided beginning in May and the balance delivered 12 months later. Venable said he will be presenting to the state his plans for the funds in the coming weeks and expects the first payment to follow closely behind.

He also said their finance and budget departments for the county will be looking at expenditures involved in the process as well as reaching out for community input.

Over in Unicoi County, Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely said they expect to receive just north of $3 million. He has also been in communications with the Department of the Treasury and said he’s awaiting further guidance on what he can do with the money in terms of giving it to non-profits, which would be his first choice in the allocation of these funds.

“They haven’t laid out the framework whether that would be in a grant, a one-time grant or if it has to be for specific uses for the non-profits so we’re still waiting on guidance on that,” said Evely.

Evely also said that the guidance continues to change every day and he continues to learn more about how the money is allowed to be spent but has yet to put any final spending plans in stone.

In Johnson City, City Manager Pete Peterson weighed in on the incoming funds. He said the city will receive roughly $13 million with $6.5 million arriving in the first batch.

Johnson City businesses were hard hit during the pandemic, when asked if additional funds from this stimulus package would help relieve them as well Peterson said they are looking into it and it will be something strongly considered by the city. However, in terms of spending the money, right now they are just brainstorming how.

“We’d like to invest it where it will have a long-term return on investment for our community, create jobs, create economic activity that would be ongoing and wouldn’t be something of short-term duration. One of the things we’re really focused on right now is trying to compare what our needs are versus what are eligible expenses,” said Peterson.

In Washington County Tennessee, Mayor Joe Grandy, said the news of these funds is great and the county will receive a little over $25 million.

Grandy said while the commission will ultimately decide how the money is spent, they won’t do so without first hearing community input. Grandy said he is currently working to put together an advisory board, specifically for assessing the needs of the community.

“My feeling is if we get a larger base of input, then will come up with better solutions. Solutions that will have a long-term lasting input on the community,” said Grandy.

Overall, while it’s still unknown exactly how the money will be spent, all of these leaders agree that this duty should be handled with great care.

“There’s a tremendous responsibility and it’s all compressed into this one time with the federal money so we want to spend this money properly,” said Venable.

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