GOSHEN — Elkhart County leaders have a general plan in place for how to disperse federal COVID-19 relief money locally.
During their meeting Monday, the county commissioners approved amending the ordinance that created a fund for receiving the money and then distributing it.
The county was allotted $40 million over two years through the federal American Rescue Plan that was passed in March. The massive $1.9 trillion bill packaged a variety of spending to serve as relief from the COVID-19 pandemic, including payments that went directly to citizens, and billions for state, county and municipal governments.
The county’s ordinance for distributing the funds was created in April, which included state and federal requirements for how the money could be spent. The first half of about $20 million has been received so far, and the county expects to receive the other half in April, county attorney Craig Buche said.
While discussing the proposed ordinance amendment, Buche said the new fund is built with four categories for directing how to use the money.
One would hold about $10.5 million for responding to the public health emergency itself, or for reducing the negative effects. Another would have about $1 million set aside, primarily for the sheriff’s office, to pay for essential work done during the emergency.
The bulk of the federal money, about $28.5 million, would go into making investments in water and sewer infrastructure, as well as broadband technology. The fourth would apparently cover a provision of government services in the case of a revenue reduction.
The Elkhart County Council would have the final say on how funds are used specifically.
Elkhart County Surveyor Philip Barker spoke on the infrastructure category, noting he’s been involved with discussions on it for the past several weeks, saying the county has several unaddressed area of illicit discharges into local water systems.
Barker argued the county has an opportunity to apply these available funds while they’re available to an issue the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer program can’t fully address. He also pointed out he wanted to ensure the funds were spent responsibly.
“Just making sure any money that we receive is going to be used the way it should be,” Barker said.
Before the commissioners voted on the amendment, Commissioner Brad Rogers voiced his concerns about the federal funds and the current plan for using them.
“The plan, although intended to be general, is too vague on how the money will be proposed to be spent, for what purpose, and who or what entity receives the funds,” Rogers said.
He argued there hasn’t been any joint meetings between the commissioners, the council and county auditor, Patty Pickens, on the plan, nor any public meetings, and additional suggestions by the council haven’t been “universally” discussed. He also alleged there is no plan for lost revenue.
Yet Rogers also pointed out he recognizes the issue Monday was for a plan and not an appropriation to spend funds, and that he can support it since it allows for adjusting the plan when needed instead of handcuffing the county.
Commissioner Suzanne Weirick disputed several of Rogers’ points. She said county staff has been regularly involved in forming the plan, and that the auditor and council members have had opportunities to speak on it. She said several council members had suggested items for the plan and the budget. Weirick also said she and Pickens have had multiple discussions on the issue of potential lost revenue.
Weirick argued in support of the plan for the funds, and for following what’s been worked out, saying federal requirements for how the county can use them shift frequently.
“With federal funds right now, the feds are constantly changing their requirements, and the sooner we can spend it — we can only spend it on the requirements we know at the time — whereas as they if they change their requirements they may have more obligations for us,” she said.
Despite Rogers’ concerns, all three commissioners voted to approve the amended ordinance with the spending plan.
C.R. 4 EXTENSION
The commissioners addressed several other issues during their meeting Monday.
Votes were taken to move a few million dollars into place, as well as to take bids, for a project to extend C.R. 4 near the RV/MH Hall of Fame. The plans call for lengthening the road from where it “T’s” into C.R. 17 and running it east to connect with C.R. 19. A roundabout is apparently part of the plans, and Elkhart city water and sewer lines would be extended to the neighboring site where Amazon plans to build two large facilities along the Indiana Toll Road.
The commissioners first voted to take about $3.65 million out of the C.R. 6 and C.R. 17 N.E. tax increment finance district and divide it into three portions of the project.
The bulk of the funds, about $3 million, was sought to purchase material for the sewer and water utilities along the road construction project. Elkhart County Plan Director Chris Godlewski told the commissioners the developer is expected to reimburse the funds by around the end of the year. And the reimbursement would ensure the appropriation isn’t added to the project’s total cost.
About $500,000 from the TIF appropriation would go toward clearing trees and foliage along the extension’s route, between C.R. 17 and C.R. 19. And $150,000 would be used to widen the intersection of C.R. 4 and C.R. 17, while also adding a left turn lane onto C.R. 4 to the west of the intersection, Godlewski described.
Bids were also opened to cover two portions of the extension.
One involved the contract for the utility materials. Three companies submitted bids, though County Administrator Jeff Taylor noted two of the bids appeared to quote amounts for portions of the 24 line items in the agreement rather than the full amount.
• Underground Pipe & Valve Co., bidding $330,674 for 12 of the items;
• Core & Main, bidding $1,234,027 possibly for 22 of the items, though Taylor said the bid would have to be re-examined, in case the bid was intended to cover the full amount;
• And Ferguson Waterworks bid $1,232,017 for all 24 items.
The second set of bids covered the contract for clearing and grading the area around where C.R. 4 will be extended. Seven companies submitted bids for this work:
• Miller Brothers Construction Inc. for $247,540;
• C & E Excavating Inc. for $259,500;
• Selge Construction Co. for $292,000;
• Niblock Excavating Inc. for $298,945;
• Beer & Slabaugh Inc. for $342,000;
• HRP Construction Inc. for $354,650;
• And Rieth-Riley Construction Co. for $548,134.
The commissioners voted to accept the bids and have the county highway department review them and make recommendations.
The commissioners also approved an interlocal agreement between the county redevelopment commission and the Toll Road Concession Co. on realigning the C.R. 4 and C.R. 17 intersection, including the route there that serves as an entrance onto the Toll Road.
County attorney Craig Buche said a proposed roundabout is planned to be built at the intersection, with the Toll Road entrance branching off of it. Buche also noted the highway department would manage the agreement, while funding would come from the redevelopment commission.