The City of Elmira’s coffers are freshly flush with $14.1 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion package designed to help the nation recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Elmira leaders began pondering the best ways to maximize ARPA’s local impact shortly after President Joe Biden signed the legislation in March. Last week, the city turned in its work.
The Elmira City Council approved an internal committee’s recommendation of how to disperse the first round of ARPA funding. The list includes investments in infrastructure like broadband access, direct support for home and business owners, and “premium pay” bonuses for city employees who served on the frontlines of the pandemic response.
“We’re definitely grateful we received these funds. We’re going to put them to good use for all our taxpayers and everyone is going to see a benefit,” said Mayor Dan Mandell.
The committee consisted of Mandell, Deputy Mayor Joseph Duffy, Councilmember Brent Stermer, Community Development Director Emma Miran, City Chamberlain Charmain Cattan and the City Manager, P. Michael Collins.
It targeted high-impact projects that might never have gotten off the ground without the influx of ARPA dollars.
“(Many projects) are something we’d have to bond for that would cost taxpayers in the long run and increase our debt,” said Mandell. “These are the kind of things we wanted to address with this money as long as it met within the guidelines of the Treasury Department.”
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Here’s a look at how the City of Elmira will utilize the funding, and the impact to residents.
The largest chunk of Elmira’s ARPA funding, 35%, is going toward investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
A lack of high-speed broadband access in parts of the city was highlighted by the COVID-19 shutdown, when students were forced into remote learning and many residents began working from home. Mandell said the city will work with the Elmira school district and other entities to upgrade broadband in areas where connectivity is lacking.
Also on the infrastructure front, the city will utilize ARPA dollars to help fund a lead line replacement project requested by the water board. Solving problems with storm sewers and drainage in the Fassett area is on the to-do list as well.
“We’re going to address that concern that we haven’t been able to do before, try to correct that and prevent flooding in that neighborhood,” said Mandell.
Help for homeowners, small businesses, non-profits
Elmira has allocated 23% of the ARPA funding for direct support to households, small businesses and nonprofits directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Almost everybody in this community was affected by COVID. We had the highest percentage of cases here in the City of Elmira,” said Mandell. “If they’re working on a project that needs some assistance they can fill out an application and we can give them the money to help improve their properties. They may have lost income during the COVID crisis. We’re hoping people will take advantage of that.”
Mandell called funding requests “an open application.” The city is still working on the details of the application, though the mayor envisions the money supporting home improvement projects and other efforts in the city that were derailed by the pandemic.
“They do have to show where they were laid off work or somehow COVID impacted their household to get the funds and address the project that they’re completing,” said Mandell. “Maybe they were in the middle of installing a new kitchen and got laid off and couldn’t finish the project. This funding can help those individuals with things like that.”
Businesses and non-profits are also eligible for funding. Non-profits saw many fundraising efforts curbed by the pandemic, and the shutdown weakened the bottom lines of small businesses.
The city has earmarked 17% of the ARPA funding to recover lost revenue. Under the federal guidelines, the money can’t be saved for a rainy day. It must be utilized, and Elmira already has a project in mind.
“Federal guidelines said anything we had budgeted plus 4% would be considered a loss. That’s how we came to that figure of just over $2 million,” said Mandell. “We cannot use that to pad our fund balance or even to do tax decreases, unfortunately. We have to put that back into the city general fund and use it in some manner. A lion’s share of those funds will go to replace the clock tower. It’s in desperate need of repair.”
The city previously received a $600,000 state grant to repair the historic clock on city hall, but the pandemic threatened to reset those plans.
“We were in a panic because that’s becoming quite a safety hazard. It’s a blessing to get that repaired,” said Mandell. “Some people ask why don’t we tear it down, but it costs almost as much to tear it down as it does to restore it.”
The city also targeted 17% of the ARPA dollars for tourism. Some funding will go to the Chamber of Commerce and some will support Woodlawn Cemetery, which is eligible for tourism dollars given the historical figures, including Mark Twain, who are interred in Elmira.
Most of the tourism allocation in Elmira’s first round of ARPA funding will help improve Dunn Field, home of the Elmira Pioneers.
“That needs a lot of work and it’s considered tourism, it brings people in from outside the area to watch baseball games,” said Mandell. “That’s something we probably couldn’t have done (without ARPA funding).”
Premium pay for employees
Finally, 8% of Elmira’s ARPA money will go back to city employees in the form of “premium pay” — a direct payment to employees who worked through the pandemic. Full-time employees will receive $5,000, with $2,500 for part-time employees and $1,000 for seasonal workers.
“Police, fire, administrative staff, everybody stepped up,” said Mandell. “You had sanitation out there picking up garbage. You had our police and fire departments responding to calls.
“They’ve been putting their health on the line, and not only their health but their family’s health as well. They could have brought something home. If they have a mother and father up there in age, it could have been fatal. We just thought it was the right thing to do.”
American Rescue Plan, Part 2
The City of Elmira’s total award from the American Rescue Plan came in at just over $28.2 million. The second half of the funding will be delivered in 2022. The city has already started developing a plan to best utilize the remaining funds based on how its programs perform in 2021.
“We will review what worked and what didn’t during the first year,” said Mandell. “We’ll look at the whole picture at the end and develop our second plan starting next year.”