As they await final guidance from the federal government, Lancaster city and Lancaster County continue to take very different approaches to planning the deployment of their American Rescue Plan Act funds, with the city moving aggressively and the county maintaining a cautious wait-and-see position.
Lancaster city has received $39.5 million through ARPA, the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief plan passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in March. The county received about $106 million.
At City Council's Tuesday meeting, Councilman Jaime Arroyo, the economic development committee chair, said the city plans to hire a consultant to assist it in complying with the highly technical and complex ARPA reporting and compliance rules.
The city will publish its request for proposals by Dec. 17, Arroyo said, and intends to award a contract early next year. That would bring the consultant on board in time to help polish up and finalize a request for proposals for affordable housing that the city is drafting. The city hopes to release that RFP by the end of March, he said.
It would be followed by other RFPs for initiatives in other categories seeking ARPA funding. Besides helping the city with its own compliance, the consultant would collaborate on the technical assistance the city provides to applicants, said Chris Delfs, director of community planning and economic development.
Those moves build on earlier steps the city has taken, including completing a public engagement process and appropriating $5 million of ARPA funds for affordable housing.
Darlene Byrd, leader of South Ann Concerned Citizens, suggested it would be simpler and less expensive for the city to draft one general RFP, rather than multiple ones. Unfortunately, the ARPA rules are too complicated and specific to do it that way, Mayor Danene Sorace said.
County officials, conversely, say it would be premature to commit the bulk of its ARPA funds until the federal government releases its final formal guidance on how the money can be used.
The county is developing "broad plans" for ARPA spending, budget Director Patrick Mulligan said at a county budget meeting Tuesday evening, and once the guidance is available, "we'll start to make our decisions." In the meantime, though, "we're just going to be cautious," he said.
Every locality that has received ARPA funding is in the same situation, Commissioner Josh Parsons said. They've been pressing federal officials constantly, to no avail.
Meanwhile, Congress is eyeing legislation that could drastically reshape ARPA, including a proposal to allow recipients to use up to 30% of the money for infrastructure construction projects.
In short, there's "no question" the guidance will continue to change before it's finalized, he said.
Craig Lehman, the lone Democratic commissioner, agreed the available guidance is incomplete, but said the county is moving unnecessarily slowly.
He referenced his proposal this summer to create a citizen participation committee to gather public input. Had it been adopted, it would be up and running by now, he said.
County citizens should have "a real voice" in deciding on ARPA allocations, Lehman said, adding that he doubts they will.
The county has appropriated $2.4 million in ARPA funds to pay bonuses to county prison staff. In addition, there are modest ARPA allocations in its 2022 budget: $150,000 for the Lancaster Conservancy, $175,000 for the Steinman Foundation for the Little Conestoga Creek stream restoration project and about $140,000 for a county foreclosure prevention program.
In the city's case, besides the $5 million devoted to affordable housing, City Hall is allocating ARPA "revenue replacement" funding of $3.2 million and $4.5 million to balance its 2021 and 2022 budgets, respectively. That leaves $26.8 million uncommitted, although the city projects using ARPA to balance its 2023 and 2024 budgets, which would likely claim several million dollars more.
After 2024, the city will no longer have ARPA as revenue replacement funds. That has the potential to create a "fiscal cliff" unless the city plans carefully, Director of Administrative Services Patrick Hopkins said, though he noted that without ARPA, "the cliff comes much earlier and it's much steeper."
The county is not budgeting ARPA funds to replace revenue in 2022. Commissioner Ray D'Agostino said in his view it's inappropriate to use one-time revenue for annual ongoing expenses.