Monroe County is getting $144 million in American Rescue Plan Act money to help it recover from the economic effects of COVID-19.
Its leaders have to figure out how to put it to best use — which is where the residents come in.
“The decisions made in the coming weeks and months regarding the use of these funds will determine whether Monroe County will enjoy merely a brief stimulus or we’ll see a new trajectory of inclusive economic growth,” Republican Monroe County Legislator George Hebert said during a news conference Aug. 3 at Penfield Town Hall. “The stakes are high. In 10 years, will people say Monroe County merely spent this money or will they say we invested it wisely?”
Members of the Republican majority announced they would partner with municipalities on listening sessions, beginning in the coming weeks in Penfield and Chili. They talked specifically of towns and villages, and held a news conference outside of legislative chambers and in an eastern suburb.
Only three members of the majority caucus were at the news conference – Majority Leader Steve Brew, Frank Allkofer and Hebert (who represents part of Penfield). However, no legislator from a city district participated, including no one from the Black and Asian Democratic Caucus that has over the past year voted with the Republican bloc on some issues.
Hebert said it may have been a matter of timing and that inclusion of the caucus wasn’t talked about before the news conference. An attempt for comment from Black and Democratic Asian Caucus member Sabrina LaMar was not successful.
The city is getting $202 million in ARPA money, some of which is earmarked for the Rochester City School District.
But the location of the Republicans’ news conference, the absence of any sign of bipartisanship and an emphasis on the towns and villages created an impression that the bulk of county ARPA dollars would head to the suburbs.
“This is not intended to be just a county initiative,” Hebert said.
He said that through conversations with constituents “across the board,” Republicans have identified priorities that include the need to expand access to broadband, which would help city families and suburban residents.
Hebert did list four other priorities gleaned through earlier input from constituents:
- Expanding small business grant program. Previous COVID relief money in the CARES Act was used for loans.
- Improving infrastructure. ARPA funding can’t be used for infrastructure, but Congress is working on a bill that would provide money for roads, bridges and other sorts of projects.
- Bolstering tourism. Tourism had been increasing until the pandemic and the county needs to be in position to compete for conventions and other business travel.
- Supporting public safety. Previous funding has not included EMS and the demands of the pandemic left many EMS agencies in financial distress. Funds also should provide resources for law enforcement and for volunteer fire departments.
He had a list of several others, including opioid overdose prevention.
Hebert said the money has to be spent between three and five years, meaning there is no rush. He said that the priorities weren’t in numerical order but assistance for small businesses and EMS should be addressed sooner rather than later.
Hebert said other suggestions would come from sessions held across the county, something he implied County Executive Adam Bello was not planning to do.
Hebert said while the Republicans “have been busy seeking public input, County Executive Bello appears to be moving toward allocating funds without … seeking community input … without speaking to all members of the legislature … and without contacting elected officials in all of our towns and villages.”
However, in his State of County speech in June, Bello pledged to “a series of robust community input sessions” in how to best invest the American Rescue Plan Funds. The sessions are to be part of a new initiative called Monroe on the Go, in which county department heads and agencies that provide services would travel throughout the county to make services more accessible.
Hebert said the legislature would have to work with the administration to actually get the money into the chosen projects. Since the funding runs for several years, the legislature and administration may not look the way it does now.
As for how residents could voice their opinions on how to spend the money, Hebert said a plan would be developed to accommodate people who couldn’t attend an in-person session. He also said plans for listening sessions would be shared with Democratic legislators.
As for how the city plans to spend its ARPA funding, spokesman Justin Roj said residents can expect public sessions in the coming months. He said Mayor Lovely Warren will work with the incoming administration in the best interests of residents. Presumptive mayor Malik Evans is chair of City Council finance committee, and therefore will be involved in the process.
For details on APRA funding, go to www.civilytics.com/posts/2021/arpa-local-aid/