With informal requests already rolling in, the county commissioners continue to take steps to properly divvy out an estimated $7 million in federal funds aimed at bolstering Knox County through the ongoing pandemic.
The county has about $3.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds sitting in the bank with about that same amount on its way early next year. But, at least until now, they’ve been reluctant to actively spend it.
The rules associated with spending it, ones handed down by the state and available via its website, are merely “interim” in nature and not final, therefore binding.
But with assurances that the allowances listed in the interim rules aren’t likely to be struck from the final list, commissioner Kellie Streeter has pushed the commissioners to develop a plan on how best to move forward.
Part of that plan was to seek the necessary professional services to guide them, so county attorney Andrew Porter sought proposals from companies interested in doing the work.
He brought to the commissioners Tuesday during their regular meeting, held at the Pantheon, 428 Main St., two, one each from the Loogootee-based Southern Indiana Development Commission, a grant administrator the county has often worked with, as well as Barnes and Thornburg, legal counsel in Indianapolis.
The first was for an annual amount not to exceed $100,000 for grant administration services while the latter was for $3,000 per month, purely for legal fees.
The commissioners, in the end, opted to table both and seek a third proposal from Reedy Financial Group, Seymour, for accounting services associated with spending the ARPA funds.
With that information, hopefully, in hand when the commissioners meet again in two weeks, they will likely choose the best path forward. It will likely take striking a deal, in some fashion, with all three, Porter advised the commissioners, although anything they spend is likely to be reimbursed with ARPA funds.
“Because each one is unique in terms of their scope of work,” Porter said of the proposals.
The commissioners, too, spoke at length about whether not legal services beyond Porter’s were even necessary.
And they could be, he said.
Should an allowance of ARPA funds be seemingly clear in the rules, such as the shoring up of funds with shortfalls the direct result of COVID-19 or water infrastructure projects, legal opinions likely aren’t necessary, he said.
“If we stick with things that are absolutely black and white, legal isn’t going to be as necessary,” he said. “But if we try to get creative, if the guidelines say X but could also mean Y, then legal services are definitely going to be needed there.
“Obviously,” he went on,” this is new for everybody.”
Porter, too, said he would reach out to Barnes and Thornburg to see if they would be open to working with Knox County on a “project basis” rather than an hourly one.
“It could be cheaper doing it that way. It could also not,” he told the commissioners.
Streeter, for one, said she though the county had “great legal counsel alraedy” in Porter while commissioner T.J. Brink said his top priority is in having someone on board who can “tell us definitely whether or not something is permissible or not.”
Brink has repeatedly said he is hesitant to spend the money until the final rules are in place.
Even still, Streeter said it’s past time for the county to begin developing a plan.
“I have a request sitting right here,” she said, enthusiastically pointing to her laptop. “And it would be nice to start funding some of these.
“So I would like for someone to come to the table and help us start making that plan.”
That first funding request, Streeter went on to say, came from Tim Smith, chief of the Vincennes Township Fire Department.
He is asking the county for upwards of $250,000 to begin placing fire hydrants in some of the district’s more populated areas, specifically ones serviced by city water and with the infrastructure already in place.
Doing so, his proposal states, would result in increased fire protection for those areas as well as a reduction in the cost of property insurance for those residents.
Streeter, too, has proposed giving stipends to local law enforcement officials — something she said other Hoosier counties have already done with ARPA funds — and the county, too, received a proposal to help do a cleaning of Kelso Creek, one of county’s primary storm water drains.
To streamline these applications, however, commission president Trent Hinkle pointed to what he thought was a successful process by which local businesses sought state-funded mini-grants from the county over the last year.
Why not create a similar online application for agencies seeking ARPA funding, he asked.
“It worked well for our small business grants,” he said.
And the commissioners seemed favorable to the idea.
“I just want to begin having those discussions, talking about the requests we’ve received,” Streeter said as discussions came to a close. “We’ve got to set up a process, start taking these requests, prioritizing them and even setting an end date for applications.”
And the final rules are still somewhat fluid, indications are that counties and municipalities will need to spend the money by 2026.