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New Hanover County moving forward with plans to spend $45 million in federal ARP funds

New Hanover County Government Complex buildling
Benjamin Schachtman
/
WHQR
New Hanover County Government Building.

Money will go to housing, infrastructure, emergency preparedness, and mental health.

New Hanover County has already begun to spend the federal dollars sent to it to address the pandemic — well ahead of the 2024 deadline.

The county will receive a total of $45 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, and it has already been paid half of that -- the other half will come in May of 2022.

The county’s intergovernmental affairs manager, Tim Buckland, presented the spending plan to the county commission on Tuesday, Sept. 8. Broadly, the money will fall into seven buckets:

  • Housing
  • Business and employment assistance
  • Internet access
  • Essential county employees
  • Administration
  • Infrastructure and emergency management
  • Physical and mental health.

Buckland pointed out that grants to nonprofits and businesses are set to go out later in September.
“Today I'm happy to report that several of the initiatives are already underway, given the board's emphasis to quickly get the money into the community to help residents and businesses recover from the economic pain of the pandemic,” he said.

Nearly a quarter of the $45 million total — the largest amount by far — is aimed at infrastructure and emergency management.

That’s split between stormwater, water, and sewer, to the tune of $6.5 million, plus an eclectic mix of other purposes, including $3.5 million aimed at developing infrastructure in Blue Clay Business Park, to “increase economic development opportunities in the area.”

That park will go on a 120-acre site near I-40 and the Wilmington International Airport, on Blue Clay Road.

The county is also spending a bit of money on housing. $370,000 will go to reimbursing non-profits for sheltering the homeless during the pandemic. $3 million is set for mortgage assistance, to help homeowners in arrears because of COVID. This program bridges a gap from a different county program aimed at renters -- the county has already spent $7 million in federal dollars on rental assistance, and expects to receive a total of $28 million for the purpose in the coming months.

Low-income residents are getting a leg up in other ways, too: 8,000 homes that qualify for food stamps or Medicaid will get broadband access for two years. And Step Up is administering paid job training programs for 200 or so people, to help them get gigs in the local film industry. And the county will lower stormwater fees for the year from $67.80 to just $12.

But the county is also experimenting with the boon from the feds — $600,000 will go to a pilot project that provides help for “workforce housing” by giving direct payments to landlords who provide it. Buckland said the program received 50 applications in the four hours it had been open before the meeting. It is “designed to provide subsidies paid directly to landlords to help individuals and households improve their living conditions,” he said.

The Department of Social Services will also hire two new employees with ARP money: a rental assistance program manager and a housing specialist who will provide counseling around housing.

There’s another set of hires through ARP as well: mental health counselors for all the schools in the county. Eight have been hired so far, and ARP money will also go towards school nurses. In all, the county plans to spend $6.7 million on physical and mental health for children and the elderly.

Finally, the county will spend $7 million on its staff. $5.2 million will go to pay employees “in recognition of county staff who have remained on the frontlines, continued important public services, and ensured residents received the help they needed at a time when it was critical,” according to county documents.

Another $1.5 million will be spent on testing unvaccinated employees for COVID-19. That policy was adopted in early August, and the budget assumed there would be 800 employees requiring testing. However, County Manager Christ Coudriet said a county assessment counted just 373 needing testing each week, as 71% of county staff are vaccinated. The county aims to get that number up by 4% by October 1.

“We hope and believe by the end of September we'll be in excess of our 75% goal,” Coudriet said. “Our organization has rallied to the call. So the scale of testing is much less than we imagined.”

County staff are already significantly more vaccinated than the general public. Just 65% of the county’s adult population is fully vaccinated, compared to the county staff’s 71%.

While the county is still accepting requests from nonprofits for various projects, two have already been rejected for not fitting in with existing guidelines from the federal government. Those projects — both of which would use ARP money on capital costs —were rejected by staff.

“Not because they are not worthy projects,” Buckland explained, but because “the Federal guidance is silent on whether AARP funds can be used for such capital commitments.”

A third project by Habitat for Humanity was approved, however. That million-dollar investment will help build sewer and water infrastructure for 53 homes in Castle Hayne.