Commissioners get more answers about ARPA money, attorney advises “Don’t spend it yet”

By Laura Schiermeier, Staff Writer
Posted 10/6/21

MARIES COUNTY —Maries County officials responsible for properly spending the county’s $1.6 million American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money were hoping for more guidance recently when they …

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Commissioners get more answers about ARPA money, attorney advises “Don’t spend it yet”

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MARIES COUNTY —Maries County officials responsible for properly spending the county’s $1.6 million American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money were hoping for more guidance recently when they met with the attorney hired by the county’s in the MRPC region. 

Presiding Commissioner Victor Stratman last week went to MRPC as the county’s representative at the meeting with attorney Travis Elliott. The counties and cities within the region are sharing the expense of the attorney’s expertise on the ARPA money. Other county officials also attended the meeting via videoconference. He said Elliott told them there is no final rule yet, but they do have interim rules. Elliott’s advice: “Don’t spend it yet.”

The Maries County Commission already has committed a portion of the money for upgrades in equipment, radios, software and technology for the county’s 911 Dispatch Center. Stratman said he’s fairly confident the federal government will approve this expenditure with the ARPA money, but he added buying radios for the fire department and EMS workers is questionable.

They talked about using the money to buy and install a generator to power the entire courthouse during a power outage. Stratman said this is probably not something they can do with the ARPA money. But, they have applied for a hazard mitigation grant through Missouri’s State Emergency Management Agency. It’s a competitive grant and there are no guarantees Maries County’s request will be awarded. 

The rules for spending the ARPA money include using it to pay for broadband upgrades. Stratman said there was discussion about this. It was suggested that while they are waiting for the final rules from the federal government, they could be doing a survey in their communities about broadband availability and level of service. They discussed a previous decision for IT Manager Shane Sweno to develop a survey, which can be put on the county’s Facebook page and in the newspaper. This would be a starting place.

At the meeting Stratman said Pulaski County asked about using ARPA money for improving a road to a tourist destination. The attorney said he would not advise it. 

They also talked about cities giving utility credits to its users and were told no. It could be done if they had a way to separate the poorer people who had trouble paying their utility bills from the people who did not and therefore did not need the financial utility credit.

Stratman did find out the county can figure if it qualifies for revenue replacement if the county expenditures exceeded revenues in 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024 as compared to 2019 due to Covid-19. Maries County did not qualify for revenue replacement when 2020 revenues and expenditures were compared to 2019. “It may work in a future year,” he said.

In the ARPA language, it states premiums can be paid to first responders. However, Elliott told them Missouri has a law specifically against this, making it a sticky situation. They may be able to allow comp time, but the documentation requirement is big. It has to be documented specifically when it happened and it has to be related to Covid-19.

Audit

An employee with the state will do a videoconference with the commissioners, clerk and treasurer next week about the recent procedural audit. They were emailed a draft and will be in closed session Oct. 7 to give their responses to the audit findings. The auditor will also have conversation with the sheriff. 

County Clerk Rhonda Rodgers said on the single financial audit, the auditor talked to her about the schedule of expenditures of federal awards (SEFA) form, which is what she fills out when the county federal money. There were some mistakes but he told her because it is something new, nearly everyone had mistakes on the form. 

MAC Conference

County officials are invited to attend the annual Missouri Association of Counties (MAC) Conference Nov. 21-23 at the Lake of the Ozarks. 

Stated issues to receive information about and as discussion topics include use tax, cyber security, broadband, human resources, ARPA money, legal updates, elections, and local government legislation. 

Stratman said he plans to go as it is important Maries County be represented at the conference. Also, he thinks making connections and associations with other county officials is helpful.

Two full time people

The commissioners are hoping county voters will help support 911 in Maries County by voting for the 911 surcharge on cell phones, which they plan to put before voters on the April 2022 election ballot. The commissioners are asking for the monthly surcharge of $1 per cell phone. Currently there is a 911 fee on landlines that pays for 911. This is a funding source that gets less and less each year. The county has to use general revenue funds to support 911. Maries County residents who do not have a landline pay nothing for 911 services in their county.

Stratman said he thinks the best selling point for the surcharge is the additional revenue will allow the county to have two full time people in the county’s 911 Dispatch Center at one time, 24/7. People who call 911 need help and are in distress so the phone should be answered on the first or second ring. 

The dispatchers also are jailers with duties involving the inmates. They also must deal with anyone who comes to the sheriff’s office. The commissioners think this is a safety issue for families and the communities. They are asking for the support of county voters on the 911 surcharge. 

Miscellaneous 

Stratman anticipates the Highway 63 Alliance will meet this week. The two people heading up the Alliance have changed jobs. This means the 63 Alliance is back to square one with its organization. Stratman said nothing has been decided. 

The Highway 63 Alliance first formed by a group of people concerned about how Highway 63 in its current condition will be able to keep up with improvements in the counties and communities it travels through in south central Missouri. It was proposed asking voters in the individual counties to approve a sales tax to support improving Highway 63, which is considered a valuable north-south corridor. The group was looking at the future and also that no funding has been set aside nationally or in Missouri to improve this highway. 

The courthouse will be closed Oct. 12 in observance of the Columbus Day holiday.

The Maries County Salary Commission is set to meet on October 28. 

On Nov. 22 MRPC representatives will meet with the commissioners about transportation issues. 

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