Tennessee counties deciding how to spend millions in ‘COVID money’

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BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – Millions of dollars are coming to localities across Northeast Tennessee, and the time is coming for local governments to decide how to spend it.

The American Rescue Plan will give over $360 billion to state and local governments across the nation to spend on a variety of needs.

News Channel 11 asked the mayors of the two largest counties in the area by population, Sullivan and Washington, about their planning process on how to spend those funds.

Sullivan County will receive over $31 million from the plan; Washington County over $25 million.

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said the sudden windfall of cash allows the county to pursue long-overdue projects it had not previously had the money to start.

“We will have a regional look at our infrastructure,” Venable said. “I think we’ll have a transformative moment in Sullivan County.”

Venable said the full Sullivan County Commission will address proposals on how to spend the money.

“Every county commissioner will see every proposal,” Venable said. “We want 24 people involved in this. It’s a lot of money, a lot of responsibility.”

He said the county has reached out to organizations and non-profits for recommendations on spending. Members of the public are also welcome to give input at county meetings, he added.

The county is looking at a variety of projects including new ambulances, tractors and trailers for the solid waste department, and water and sewer lines in the rural areas of the county.

“We’ve had to address sewer needs in rural areas,” Venable said. “This is the first time we’ve had an opportunity to look at what we could use in the county.”

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy said the rural water supply was his top priority on how to spend the funds. He said over 200 miles of roads in Washington County do not have municipal water access.

While the $25 million from the American Rescue Plan does not cover the cost of installing water lines to the entire county, he said it puts them on the right path.

“It’s probably $150 million worth of work required, but this gives us a really great start,” Grandy.

Grandy also wanted to see investment in agriculture, Washington County’s number one economic sector, he said.

Washington County is using two committees to determine how to spend the money – one compromised of members of the public and one of county commissioners.

But Grandy and Venable expressed concern over the lack of federal guidance on how they can spend the money. They said a set of preliminary rules have been released, but not the full rules.

“If it’s later determined that this was a project that doesn’t fit into that model, then Washington County would be responsible for paying the money and we definitely don’t want to be in that position,” Grandy said.

Grandy said he expects the full rules to be released in early 2022.

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