City lays out a roadmap for spending ARPA funds. Meanwhile, the council is getting frustrated with its internet service.

By Logan Roddy, senior contributor

With more than $23.8 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act on its way to Harrionburg, the city council will spend a work session Nov. 16 — and possibly a second later in the month — working through how to prioritize projects and upgrades. 

The city received the first half of the funds in May, which city manager Eric Campbell has recommended be committed to city projects that were put on hold after the pandemic shut down many businesses and the state ordered people to stay home in spring 2020. Campbell said he estimated the city lost between $6 million and $8 million in revenue during the last budget.

The second allotment will be paid next May, and all the funds must be obligated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. 

Campbell told the council at Tuesday’s meeting that he’d like to see community members have more input in how to spend that portion of the money. 

In the meantime, “we can develop a community engagement process to help inform the spending plan and then allocations would move forward,” he told the council. 

In addition to the $23.8 million the city will receive, the Harrisonburg City Public Schools got $11.8 million.

Campbell said it doesn’t necessarily mean free money for the city, and that the spending has to be in connection to the impact that the pandemic has had on the city. Under the American Recovery Plan Act localities have five primary uses for the funds:

  • Supporting public health expenditures
  • Addressing negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency
  • Replacing lost public sector revenue
  • Providing premium pay for essential workers
  • Investing in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure

And direct payments to the city isn’t the only way Harrisonburg  could tap into those federal funds Congress approved earlier this year. 

Virginia received $13.8 billion, which it could distribute to localities — some through grants, and some of it through the budget process.

A graph provided to the city council on Tuesday shows the breakdown of additional funds the state could distribute.

And “keep in mind, we can apply directly to the federal government as well,” Campbell said.

With so many different funding sources and city departments that might apply for additional grants, Mayor Deanna Reed said city leaders should make clear strategic decisions about how to spend the money. 

“Some of these organizations are going to get funding, and then we don’t want to be doubling, because it could go through them,” Reed said.

Campbell said the city staff is working on a list of suggested projects, and that list should be completed before the work session. But he said it’ll be a fluid process because it’s not yet clear when the commonwealth will begin to release the money in different sectors. One sector of the city that Campbell said he knows is looking for additional funding through the state is tourism.

“So for example let’s say we put a project on the city list, and then realize it’s eligible that we can apply for a grant from the commonwealth. Then we will move that off our list, which will create room for something else,” Campbell said.

Council member Chris Jones made the motion to forego the council’s regular Nov. 23 meeting — the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week — and replace it with two work sessions, so that they can hear from staff and then mull over the recommendations. 

“Although there are other very pressing matters, this is such a monumental opportunity for legacy and rebuild, I think it deserves the time and attention of not just one work session but two,” Jones said. The first work session would be Nov. 16 and the second, if needed, would be Nov. 30. 

Vice mayor Sal Romero said he agreed with adding a second session if needed, because “we’re not as pressured to get everything done in one meeting.”

Upgrading city meeting streaming technology

Because of a cable outage of Tuesday night’s meeting, Jones formally asked the council and staff to explore how to upgrade the city’s video delivery. 

“Do these things happen? Of course they do,” Jones said. “You’re dealing with humans with technology so mistakes are going to happen. However, we only have to get this right, like, 20 times a year.”

Jones said a reliable internet streaming of the meeting is important because many people don’t have access to cable or have cut the cord.  

Reed said she receives “some type of complaint every city council meeting.”

“And I actually think that now, because of the pandemic and people not coming out, that people are now really watching more, either on TV or online,” Reed said.

She also said that because they offer streaming options for more city meetings besides the twice-monthly council meetings , such as the city school liaison committee and the parks and recreation department, that it’s time “to look into a better system.”

Campbell chimed in that he and staff have been looking into the situation, and that the problem is more technical than human. He said he’s written a formal letter from the city to Comcast (now Xfinity) asking for an upgrade, to which he’s gotten no response.

Romero said even with the best cable service possible, it still wouldn’t be accessible to many.. He proposed investing in broadband using the ARPA funds to upgrade the technology.

“If we’re going to be a city for all, we’ve got to be a city for all,” Reed said. “We need to make sure that people are able to access.”

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