The American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, was enacted March 11 and has allowed the city of Athens to begin financial recovery from hurdles caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city will receive slightly more than $2.5 million in total to be used over four years to help repay lost revenue and improve infrastructure, among other things, Athens Mayor Steve Patterson said. His job in regard to these funds is working with the auditor’s office to sift through the city’s budget and revenues to identify what areas were most impacted by COVID-19.
The Athens Community Center and garbage funds are two such areas that experienced significant impacts, Patterson said. The community center had to be shut down due to programs being reduced in order to keep citizens safe.
As of now, $335,000 from the fund have been appropriated to different areas in the city, according to a document provided by Auditor Kathy Hecht. Within that sum, $300,000 were used to make up lost revenues, and $35,000 were used to authorize Patterson to begin the creation of remote workplace infrastructure.
The city’s biggest focus is making up revenues that were lost during the pandemic, Councilman Sam Crowl, D-3rd Ward, said.
“There's the water fund, the sewer fund that we saw had a decrease as well in terms of revenue coming in, based upon our 2019 budget versus the 2020 budget,” Patterson said. “And we're still seeing that somewhat in 2021. That's the problem with a pandemic: you're budgeting across time.”
To help work with the complications of such budgeting, multiple city offices work together to decide where funds should be appropriated.
The mayor’s office collaborates closely with the auditor’s office, prior to appropriation proposals being brought to Athens City Council’s Finance and Personnel Committee, Crowl said. When appropriation proposals are brought to committee, the public has its first chance to comment on or ask about such proposals.
During committee meetings, proposals are discussed at length, including why the recommendation is brought forward, how much it would cost and what procedures would be involved. If the committee approves of the proposal, it will be brought to the entire Council as an ordinance and begin a three-read process.
“It takes about six weeks for an ordinance to pass, so there's lots of opportunities for the public to share their ideas,” Crowl said. “And ordinances can be amended, so even though we present things at that first meeting, it can always be amended and then sent back to first reading.”
The mayor’s office is currently working on two possible recommendations to be brought forward, including one regarding broadband, Patterson said. Those programs are not set in stone yet, however, as ARPA funds must first be used to make up lost revenues.
Should it be appropriate, he hopes to bring fiber connectivity to Uptown Athens. That would allow the microwave system, which is currently in use to be removed, and free wifi to be available along Court Street.
That plan would be implemented through a five-phase program over a number of years, Patterson said. Additionally, he hopes to create a remote workspace within the Athens Armory, 2 W. Carpenter St.
Crowl shared his hopes to implement those programs as well. However, he is unsure if there will be enough funds left over to do so.
“I think we will have sufficient funds to replace the revenue lost, but it will be difficult to know how much that will be and how much it will be extra to do things like broadband,” Crowl said.