Owensboro city commissioners said they favor using American Rescue Plan Act dollars to make needed improvements to city infrastructure, such as addressing flooding and supporting water and sewer projects.
Commissioners said other uses could be found for some of the funds, with one commissioner saying he would also support using the federal dollars to create housing options for the city’s homeless population. Mayor Tom Watson said he supports ARPA dollars going to one-time expenditures, rather than creating an ongoing cost for the city.
ARPA dollars were approved by Congress earlier this year, and the city is scheduled to receive about $13 million in two installments. ARPA dollars are not open-ended: The federal government puts limits on how the dollars can be used.
At a work session earlier this month, the city staff presented options for how the federal dollars could be spent, including undertaking a drainage project in the York neighborhoods, helping Owensboro Municipal Utilities and Regional Water Resource Agency finance water and sewer projects, making parks improvements in qualifying areas of the city, and using some of the funds to recoup revenue the city lost due to COVID-19 pandemic.
Watson said Monday he has received 50 or more proposals about how the money could be used. Watson said when commissioners decide how to spend the dollars, they should not take on something that will cost the city more money going forward.
“If we are going to do something, it should be for some nonrecurring expense,” Watson said. A project that would require the city to take on a debt is “not very useful,” he added.
Funneling funds to water and sewer projects could save taxpayers money, Watson said.
If the city helped OMU finance a water project with ARPA dollars, “maybe that will help in not having to raise rates,” he said.
Commissioner Bob Glenn said commissioners will look for projects “where we can do the most good for the community and not go into debt.”
“Flooding and homelessness would be at the top of my list,” Glenn said.
In addition to reducing flooding, the city could use ARPA dollars to purchase property for transitional housing for the homeless community and turn the property over to an agency to operate the property, Glenn said.
The federal government supports helping the homeless acquire transitional housing where they can receive other help and not remain homeless, Glenn said.
“I don’t think it would be easy to do that,” given the current real estate market, Glenn said.
Commissioners have time to look into options and hear from the public. The funds don’t have to be allocated until the end of 2023 and can be spent as late as December 2024.
“The biggest thing is we want to be cognizant of is this is still the taxpayers’ money,” Glenn said. “We have time to make an educated decision.”
Commissioner Jeff Sanford said helping OMU and RWRA make water and sewer improvements would benefit the city’s economy.
The money will not do as many projects as people might expect. During the recent work session, city staff said a York area drainage project could cost up to $4 million, and suggested $2.5 million contributions to OMU and RWRA for projects.
If the city did those three expenditures, “you’re already approaching (the funds) being gone,” Sanford said. The commissioners will have to decide “how we can impact the most people with the dollars.”
“We have identified some things that have got to be done,” Sanford said. “There is crumbling infrastructure that has got to be taken care of. We don’t have any choice with that.
“Infrastructure is good for economic development,” Sanford said. With water and sewer improvements, “we’ll be able to handle more industry,” he said.
Commissioner Larry Maglinger said commissioners will have discussions on how to use the ARPA funds in the near future.
“This could be a good opportunity to fund three of those infrastructure projects that eventually are going to have to be done,” Maglinger said. ARPA funds used for infrastructure projects “could save all city taxpayers money,” Maglinger added.
“This is an opportunity,” Maglinger said. “It’s one-time money that could be used to solve those problems.”
Maglinger said he has also heard from some members of the public about how the money could be spent.
“I’ve gotten some suggestions, quite a few,” Maglinger said. “We need to look at all of them and do what’s best for the citizens.”
Commissioner Mark Castlen said he supports the plan for addressing flooding in the North York neighborhoods.
“That has been one of my top priorities once I’ve been elected ... address some of the areas that have been neglected,” Castlen said. “I’d like to see some of the money sprinkled around to the nonprofits, but I’m not sure that’s going to be possible with the language from the federal government.”
Castlen said he supports putting funds toward parks, particularly Max Rhoads Park on Walnut Street. Upgrading the park would benefit residents who live nearby, Castlen said.
“Max Rhoads Park is one I mentioned several times, and I’d like to see part of the money go to it,” he said. “There are probably other parks around town that need help, also.”
Castlen said he also thinks the funds should be used for one-time projects that don’t create additional debt.
“I think all the commissioners are on board with it, also,” Castlen said.
James Mayse, 270-691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @JamesMayse