Asheville – Buncombe County received $50.7 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. A press release from the county quotes Chair Brownie Newman.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meaningfully and intentionally move the needle on multiple projects of community interest. We believe that this is a strong first step in a series of funding rounds that will have lasting impact by addressing issues like homelessness, internet access, and early childhood education. The commission evaluated many strong proposals and fully anticipates funding additional projects under a rolling award process.”
In other words, “rescue” and “recovery” are not intended in their typical senses, as in, “Government took your job and now they owe you compensation” – at least without a stretch.
To select sub-recipients for the funds, the county launched a request for proposals (RFP) and received 141 responses. Staff screened the proposals to make sure they complied with the RFP, were consistent with US Treasury guidance, served a public purpose, and supported a service the county has authority to fund. After that, they underwent a technical review by staff and the commissioners.
Buncombe County’s Strategic Partnerships Director Rachael Nygaard shared the names of the recipients along with a brief description of how their project qualified. One eligible category is public health, for supporting vaccinations and testing. The category also includes mental health and substance abuse services, which is fair in light of the number of people who couldn’t cope with forced unemployment and isolation.
The county awarded two grants in this category, both to its own departments. It will spend $543,714 on vaccination “planning and implementation,” with special emphasis on equity for “historically underserved communities and vulnerable populations.” Another $1 million will be set aside for whatever surprises the future of COVID may hold. As well, “Buncombe County will seek to maximize all other potential revenue sources such as funds from [the] North Carolina Division of Public Health.”
Another legitimate category would support household assistance, job programs, and business relief. Thanks to hyper-regulation, the era of embracing the challenge of bootstrapping oneself is gone. Therefore, the county awarded $500,000 to the Buncombe County Service Foundation and Mountain BizWorks for the One Buncombe fund. The fund was established, “to help families and businesses stay afloat until longer-term relief, such as federal grants and loans, became available. Now as we move into pandemic recovery, another infusion of support is needed.”
In the same category, the Center for Agricultural and Food Entrepreneurship was awarded $200,000. The recipient is the nonprofit behind Blue Ridge Food Ventures at the A-B Tech Enka campus. It will use the money for the development of WNC FoodWorks, an incubator for small businesses requiring inspection by the US Food and Drug Administration and the county’s health department. It will be located at the WNC Farmer’s Market.
Government could also, somewhat reasonably, be put on the hook for redesigning spaces to comply with COVID guidelines, including making sure poor communities have access to online learning. In the category of Education Assistance, the county awarded Verner Center for Early Learning $419,309, not to recover COVID losses, but to extend its hours of operation.
The rationale for supporting this with COVID funds is it will allow “caregivers” more time to work, pursue vocational training, and “have time to take care of their own physical and mental health needs.” In addition, “The funds requested will allow us to leverage our federal Early Head Start (EHS) funding to provide expanded high-quality early childhood education while collecting data and evidence that support the benefits of an extended day for EHS children and families who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”
In previous meetings, the commissioners had already approved awarding Homeward Bound $2 million toward the acquisition of the Days Inn on Tunnel Road, and the latest approval brings the total up to $3 million to include renovations. Amazingly, since Governor Cooper’s first shut-down executive orders in March 2020, people have been living out in the elements and sustained enough trauma to now qualify for programming Homeward Bound provides for the chronically homeless.
Another eligible expense is offering premium pay to public sector employees. It’s a nice gesture, but is the $1,040,000 the county will disburse in lump-sum payments worth the $1.9 trillion the government must now fund with inflation, with or without debt?
From there, categories stretch into realms of creating beautiful cities. For example, COVID did not destroy the water or sewer systems or internet communications, but ARPA will now pay for their improvements. In the county, $4 million will be spent “facilitating the expansion of high-speed internet in unserved areas.” This award is contingent upon changes in state legislation that would allow counties to subsidize broadband infrastructure. Should the necessary bills be passed, the county subsidy would be a match for awards made to a private provider through the state’s GREAT grant program.
Lastly, if there were no ARPA program, government wouldn’t have to pay for its administration. Nonetheless, the county has set aside $606,472 for compliance activities.
Economist Johan Norberg used to describe government spending as a festive party. In strong economies, governments borrow, as if there are neither limits nor repercussions, and credit extensions and refinancing will always be available. When the economy tanks and neither raising taxes nor finding another lender are viable options; the feeling is much like that among the inebriated when somebody takes away the punch bowl.