THE PROBLEM: The Lancaster County government received $106 million from the 2021 US Bailout Act. Federal relief money can be used to meet a wide range of community needs, including (but but not limited to) improving and supporting the community’s public health response; address the negative economic impacts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic; replace lost public sector revenue; invest in housing projects; and investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. NL | LancasterOnline’s Tom Lisi and Jade Campos reported this month on public discussions and decision-making by the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners regarding the use of relief funds. All the money must be spent by 2026, and “the law also requires local governments to decide by the end of 2024 which projects the money will fund,” Lisi reported.
Commissioners have important decisions to make regarding the spending of these relief funds, which have been necessitated by the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in many sectors.
This is a historical and one-time kitty, and the commissioners are right to generally target expenses that would be one-time and non-recurring. Yet even within this setting, we believe there is a lot of flexibility and a lot of lasting good that these funds can do for Lancaster County. These opportunities should not be wasted.
Here are our thoughts on some of the specific relief fund discussions that were reported in LNP | LancasterOnline this month.
On June 15, Lisi reported that Republican Commissioners Ray D’Agostino and Josh Parsons and Democratic Commissioner John Trescot agree “that they will prioritize projects with lasting effects, such as environmental cleanup efforts and preservation of the land”.
The idea is that such projects will benefit all or most county residents and be a boon to future generations.
We agree with this philosophy. The county has a tradition of thoughtful environmental stewardship, but the ways our natural resources have become fragile and threatened are well documented. Local organizations and nonprofits have great ideas on how to restore and protect our earth; giving them the funding they need to do so is wise.
As an example, commissioners on Wednesday “approved $3.4 million for a water pollution mitigation project proposed by Lancaster Clean Water Partners, a coalition of organizations working on environmental issues. ‘water’, LNP | LancasterOnline’s Campos reported.
Campos added: “The money will be used for projects to reduce agricultural runoff into waterways in the area, as part of a larger effort to reduce high loads of sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus that ultimately threaten the health of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.”
Small expenses can also have a big effect. Commissioners have approved a request for about $120,000 from Martic Township for a railroad track project connecting Conestoga and Providence townships, Campos reported.
“(It’s) one of the smaller demands, but having such a significant impact on the community, the rail trail will have a very significant economic impact,” Parsons said. “The more accessible we make it, the better it is for Lancaster County.”
Returning to the June 15 article, Lisi reported that the commissioners “included affordable housing as an eligible project type in its application form for community ARPA funding, but did not designate it as a top priority when working session”.
Commissioners should place a high priority on funding affordable housing projects, especially those that involve one-time expenses and do not burden county ratepayers with future costs.
As we’ve written many times in this space, affordable housing is a critical need in Lancaster County – and it’s deeply tied to the county’s economic growth and well-being.
A recent analysis by Lancaster County housing and redevelopment authorities called the housing shortage for low- and middle-income families “serious”. He said there were about 4,300 homes across the county with rents low enough to accommodate families of two or three earning around $40,000 a year or less.
“To meet the demand for such units, the county would need approximately 1,150 additional units to connect each year over a decade, according to the analysis – far more than the current rate of affordable housing development,” reported Lisa on April 25.
Lisi reported this month that county relief fund requests included $6 million for a low-income housing development for about 210 seniors in Penn Township; $80,000 to help fund repairs to 40 homes inhabited by low-income residents; and $189,000 to renovate a three-story apartment building in Denver for five low-income families.
“In another housing application, the YWCA requested $2.5 million in part to add 16 affordable housing units to its historic downtown Lancaster location,” Lisi reported.
We understand that the commissioners are careful in their management of relief funds and that before making certain decisions, they are waiting to see what other requests come in from various parts of the county.
But affordable housing must be a top priority for funding allocations. And we hope that these requests can be expedited. The logic of approving environmental cleanup projects because they are a boon to all or most of the county and produce benefits for future generations also applies to affordable housing.
We need to do a better job of providing housing options for anyone looking to work and raise a family in Lancaster County.
Finally, we have some concerns about a June 17 article by Lisi indicating that some of the federal pandemic relief funds could “just go to existing county operations.” He also raised the question of “whether a change in the law would allow the county to use (part of the funds) for the construction of a new prison”.
The story centered on a draft budget document outlining potential ways to spend federal money. These measures have not yet been approved or discussed much by the commissioners, Lisi reported.
But we find it troubling that there is even the possibility that, according to Lisi, “the county could use up to 70% of its American Rescue Plan Act allocation on existing county operations, equipment and upgrades.” technological level. That would leave about $33.5 million for outside projects requested by local organizations and municipalities.
Such a course of action would run counter to the philosophy of using the money for the lasting good of the county and its people.
Additionally, we are concerned that transferring these millions to the general fund will make it difficult, if not impossible, to determine where the relief funds are ultimately deployed. It’s terrible for transparency.
D’Agostino pointed out that it is within the guidelines to transfer relief funds into the general fund to cover general government services.
He is right, but it seems to us that this would be a huge missed opportunity.
Trescot said he would be “categorically opposed” to using relief funds for the new prison, which is expected to cost more than $100 million. Rather, he thinks now is the time to be aggressive when it comes to transformation projects in the county.
We agree. American Rescue Plan Act funds are expected to benefit the people of Lancaster County in the most tangible and lasting way possible.