With half of Athens County’s $19.5 million from the federal American Rescue Plan now disbursed and in some cases put to use, broadband and other infrastructure needs are emerging as key priorities for the county’s local governments.
According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s website, the ARP, passed in March, provides local governments with funds to: support public health, address economic impacts of the pandemic, replace lost public sector revenue, pay essential workers and invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
Of Athens County’s $19.5 million, $12.6 million is at the discretion of the Athens County commissioners, with the remainder supporting the county’s city, village, and township governments. Half of this funding has already been disbursed, with the other half scheduled for disbursement next year.
Although the county’s local governments are at various stages in the process of allocating funds – with some having already spent the bulk of their first year’s funding and others having yet to discuss spending plans – key local priorities are beginning to take shape.
Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel told the Messenger he and other commissioners are at a very early stage in their use of ARP dollars.
Chmiel said the commissioners are considering a partnership with Hocking Athens Perry Community Action — for which Chmiel is the treasurer — to help oversee the disbursement of funds, and that he hopes to issue a formal request for proposals.
Based on Chmiel’s discussions with other commissioners and local officials, he said he intends to make broadband a major priority, with $250,000 of the county’s funds already earmarked for a possible broadband project in Amesville.
Stressing that the commissioners will evaluate projects based on the proposals they receive, Chmiel said he’s particularly interested in those that would see the county’s dollars combine with other funding streams, for instance through partnerships with other local governments utilizing ARP dollars.
Officials with multiple township governments expressed skepticism about partnering with the county commissioners, however.
Rome Township Fiscal Officer Willard Dunfee said the township hopes to support the Hocking Valley Resource Center with its roughly $138,000 in ARP funding. According to its website, HVRC is “a nonprofit community organization focused on the preservation of… historic buildings, while providing the community a place for gatherings, art, music and other activities.”
Of the county government’s focus on broadband, Dunfee said, “Everybody’s internet will go up, and it’s just making money for somebody else. This way, it’s going to the people and not to make somebody else rich.”
If, for any reason, the township is unable to partner with the HVRC, Dunfee said he would “give the money back,” rather than explore any broadband partnership with county commissioners.
Ames Township Trustee Lyle Fuller told the Messenger that while the township’s plans are far from final, the goal is to bring high speed internet to the township with the $108,000 they received. But, Fuller said he doesn’t want to partner with the county commissioners, believing the outcome of the partnership would be that “one little piece of the township benefits from it right on 550 or whatever.”
Fuller said, “We want to make sure that the money we are spending is going to benefit as many people as possible within the township.”
Troy Township Trustee Mike Putnam said the township, which will receive over $223,000, hasn’t gotten very far in its plans, but intends to focus on broadband.
Broadband is also a major focus in the City of Athens, which will receive over $2.5 million through the ARP. Mayor Steve Patterson told the Messenger the city hopes to use roughly a fifth of this funding to connect city buildings to broadband. Currently, Patterson said the city is operating off of an aging microwave internet system that causes problems for the city.
Ultimately, Patterson said he hopes the city will provide free Wi-Fi on Court Street and West Washington Street.
Patterson hopes to use another large chunk of the city’s ARP dollars to convert the Athens Armory at the end of Court Street into a remote work space that anyone could use. Patterson claims this will promote economic development in the city by drawing “more remote workers to come live, work and play.”
The city is also utilizing a portion of its ARP dollars to replace revenue lost during the pandemic.
Other Infrastructure Projects
Chauncey Mayor Amy Renner said the Village of Chauncey, which will receive about $108,000 through the ARP, is allocating a portion of its funds to a sewer line replacement project.
“It’s a critical project of the village, so it’s kind of a no-brainer for us,” Renner said.
Albany’s council president Neal Reynolds said he hopes to utilize the village’s more than $93,000 in ARP funds to support the extension of the village’s sewer system down Carpenter Road.
Reynolds said this would allow for more economic development in the village, leading to the creation of more local jobs and housing that would help Albany, “let kids graduate high school and stay here.”
Nelsonville City Manager Scott Frank said the city already used more than half of its first year in ARP funding to buy police cruisers, since three were recently totaled, but is seeking reimbursement from the State of Ohio. If reimbursed, this would give Nelsonville more funding to work with.
Frank said the city, which will receive over $530,000 through the ARP, hopes to use the bulk of these funds to support water line infrastructure.
A portion of Nelsonville’s ARP dollars were also recently allocated to support hazard pay bonuses for the city workers, with full-time employees receiving $500 bonuses and part-time employees receiving $100 bonuses.
“I believe they deserve a lot more than that, but that’s what we’ve got,” Frank said.
Village of Buchtel Fiscal Officer Kirk Grandy said the village used most of its first year of ARP dollars to upgrade playground equipment, with additional dollars supporting blacktopping and signage at the village’s watering trough.
The village, which will receive about $59,000, is exploring additional upgrades to the playground with remaining funds, Grandy said.
Athens Township Trustee Ted Linscott said that while the township has no concrete plans yet, but the current intention is to use a portion of the township’s more than $724,000 to improve access to the outdoors. One plan includes expanding the park in The Plains and installing handicap accessible playground equipment.
“One of the things we’ve learned from going through COVID is that we need better access for outdoor space and outdoor gathering places,” Linscott said.
Lee Township Trustee James Bub Turner said he didn’t yet know how the township would use its nearly $200,000 in ARP funds, stressing that the township is taking care to use the funds within the scope of the law.
Waterloo Township Fiscal Officer Kimberly Russell said the township government, which will receive a total of around $271,000, “didn’t even discuss it yet.”
Coolville Village Council member James Neal Ford said the village hasn’t settled on what to do with its roughly $51,000, explaining that the council is “trying to figure out the best path forward for the whole village.”
Officials with the county’s eight other townships and five other villages did not respond to the Messenger’s request for comment by press time.