Commissioners want to start discussing how to best use about $11.755 million in federal funds earmarked for COVID-19 pandemic relief, but questions remain about what projects will qualify for funding and what projects other agencies will spend their relief funds on.

“How do we determine how we spend that?” asked Colleen Mall, 9th District commissioner.

Cumberland County Mayor Allen Foster said he believed the budget committee would make that recommendation to the full commission, though the county could form a special committee for that purpose.

“We’re waiting on the final rule,” Foster said. “We know broadband is going to be eligible and we know water and sewer is going to be eligible. We’re going to have money after that still left to spend.”

He mentioned parks and recreation, which the county is currently developing a plan to use in grant applications.

“I would like to spend some money on our parks,” Foster said. “But there’s going to be money over and above those items that’s left.”

Several commissioners were eager to start discussions on potential projects.

“Doesn’t it make sense for us to start hearing the information about those things?” asked Deborah Holbrook, 8th District commissioner. “It would be good for us to understand what the needs are before, ‘Oh, here’s some money. Now do it.’”

Foster said the state had money to dole out for water and sewer projects and broadband work.

Terry Lowe, 5th District commissioner, said he would like to see water projects take a priority, particularly in areas not currently served by a public water source.

“I’d like to see everybody have clean water,” he said.

Joe Sherrill, 6th District commissioner, said the committee needed to know what projects other agencies were pursuing. Then, they could join forces to have a greater impact with the funding.

“If we can all work together, we can do a lot more,” Sherrill said.

He recommended a meeting of the committee devoted to the use of federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Foster and County Finance Director Nathan Brock and other members of the finance office have been attending webinars and other educational sessions offered by the state on how the funds may be used.

The funds may be used to support the public health response; address negative economic impacts; water, sewer or broadband infrastructure; premium pay for essential workers; replacing lost revenue; and providing equity-based services for disproportionately impacted populations.

The money cannot be used to reduce tax revenue, make deposits in pension funds, fund debt payments or legal settlements, or increase rainy day funds.

“The feds have not issued the final guidance on what you can do with that,” Brock said. “The state has strongly advised us to be sure what the final rules are.”

The county has received about half of its allotment, with the second payment estimated to be received in the second half of 2022. Money must be spent between March 3, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2026, with plans for how money will be spent finalized by Dec. 31, 2024.

Brock said the money was being kept in a separate bank account so that it does not mingle with the county’s regular operating budget or other grant funds. The budget committee and commission have not yet approved a budget amendment recognizing the money.

Commissioners asked if the money could make up losses in revenue from hotel/motel taxes last year or court fees. However, the county did not have an overall loss of revenue, with a record-setting year of sales tax collections and property taxes coming in at about 100% of the budgeted amount.

“We don’t have revenue loss,” Foster said.

Brock gave the committee an update on county revenue since the fiscal year began July 1. Sales tax collections for August and September have garnered $2.27 million in revenue for the school system against a budget of $12.6 million, $226,359 ahead of budget. Sales tax collections represent sales activity from two months before. 

Hotel/motel tax collections were $256,650 from July through September. That’s up from $157,636 for the same period in 2020, when hotel/motel taxes were down considerably amid the ongoing pandemic. The county budgeted $808,712 in hotel/motel tax revenue.

Ambulance billing collections have exceeded budget for the first three months of the fiscal year, with $1.2 million collected against a $4 million budget, $233,412 ahead of budget. The county is currently awaiting guidance from the state on how to resolve a billing error that resulted in the state paying more for services than it was supposed to pay for Medicare services.

Prisoner boarding revenue was $33,345 for one month of revenue. This is money paid by the state to the county for housing state inmates. The county budgeted $602,396 in prisoner boarding revenue for the year.

Heather Mullinix is editor of the Crossville Chronicle. She covers schools and education in Cumberland County. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.

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