By Logan Roddy, senior contributor
Making improvements to the Northeast Neighborhood, funding childcare programs and upgrading parks and recreation facilities topped city council members’ priority list for how to use the $23.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds Harrisonburg will receive.
In Tuesday’s work session dedicated to hashing out a process for spending those funds over the next five years, the council members also approved the creation of an ARPA grant coordinator. The person hired into that job would research other funding options — such as from the infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law — to make sure the city makes the best use of its $23.8 million in ARPA funds. The federal government recommends localities designate someone to coordinate the grants and applications so as not to double-up on funding opportunities.
While the council members outlined their top priorities, final decisions won’t be made until after a series of public hearings, which they also discussed Tuesday.
But when it came to what to look at first, the council members largely agreed on key areas and programs.
Mayor Deanna Reed said her top priority was to pump money into the Northeast neighborhood. All the council members agreed.
“We need to pave streets over there. We’ve had issues with sidewalks over there. We’ve had issues with trees over there — just basic items,” Reed said. She also said they’ve been trying to build a fence around the cemetery for over 20 years.
Jones suggested working with the Public Works Department to create a detailed checklist of needed improvements.
Support for childcare
Vice Mayor Sal Romero pointed out that the pandemic has exacerbated the need for childcare in town. Because many of the existing before- and after-school programs in Harrisonburg are fully booked and have waiting lists, he said the council should consider supplementing some new programs to help the most vulnerable populations.
Jones said funding for another building, nonprofit organization related to childcare, or providing subsidies couldn’t hurt the private sector and would only help the workforce, as well as children and their families.
Romero said he’s heard childcare facilities, like many businesses, are struggling to find enough workers, so helping supplement childcare workers’ salaries could help the community.
Potential park improvements, bonuses for city workers
Romero also suggested the ARPA funding could help essential city employees who worked throughout the pandemic. And the five council members agreed to prioritize some kind of bonus for the roughly 1,000 city workers.
Council members also agreed many parks and recreation projects need attention. Because ARPA allows for spending on city facilities, the council members suggested replacing the Kids Castle at Purcell Park, improving the Westover Skatepark and developing a Smithland Athletic Complex.
Hosting and moderating public forums
In addition, the council members directed city staff to contract with James Madison University — specifically the Institute for Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue — and the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce to facilitate and host the community engagement piece of the plan, respectively.
Council member Chris Jones said he’d like to see it be done in the form of discussions “at various neighborhoods, on various days, at various times.”
“That way it’s not just during the middle of the daytime and if you’re not wealthy or at lunch break, you can make it,” Jones said. “We need to make it so that everyone can make it.”
He also said he specifically mentioned the chamber because of its connections to businesses, nonprofit organizations and religious groups, as well as community members.
Resolution about Virginia’s policy on inmates
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the council also unanimously approved a resolution urging the General Assembly to mandate timely transfers by the Virginia Department of Corrections. The resolution calls upon Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, and Republican Sen. Mark Obenshain to sponsor and support legislation in the state budget to require the corrections department to receive all state inmates within 60 days if the space is available.
The resolution also asks for a law change to require jail per diem rates reimburse local and regional jails for the actual cost of housing inmates and be regularly adjusted for inflation in line with the Consumer Price Index.
Brown said that even as MRRJ is one of the more efficient regional jails in Virginia, it costs $58 a day to house those state corrections department inmates. The state reimburses jails $12 a day for that service.
And when Middle River Regional Jail Superintendent Jeffery Newton spoke to the council this fall, he mentioned how leaving state inmates in the jail contributed to its overcrowding.
“Each year as part of the budgeting process, the General Assembly includes language basically granting discretion to the director of the Department of Corrections to accept prisoners when the director deems it appropriate to do so,” City Attorney Chris Brown said Tuesday.
Brown said he worked on the resolution with Newton, who said he’d share it with the other MRRJ contributing localities — Waynesboro, Staunton and Rockingham and Augusta counties.
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