Mendocino County received $16.8 million in one-time federal funding to soften the blows of the pandemic, especially for those who were hit the hardest. But some of that money has gone towards remodeling the Board of Supervisors chambers and purchasing metal detectors.
The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) was signed into law last year, amending the Social Security Act with some broad mandates. States, territories, and tribal governments can use the money to provide assistance to households, small businesses or affected industries and nonprofits; to offer premium pay to essential workers; to invest in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure; or to provide government services. The U.S Department of the Treasury urged local governments “to engage their constituents and communities in developing plans to use these payments.”
But unlike the PG&E settlement funds, most of the public in Mendocino County doesn’t even know that the money is available, or what it can be used for. Now, as the economy stumbles, the Board of Supervisors is poised to use the award to balance the county budget.
“People don’t even have food,” said Juan Orozco, a Ukiah City Councilman and co-chair of an inland Latino advocacy organization called UVA, Vecinos en Acción. And, he argued, not everyone who fell behind during the pandemic has caught up. “With not having a job, with not having income, you lose housing,” he explained.
UVA got a $50,000 Latino Power Fund grant from the Bay-Area-based Latino Community Foundation to hire an advocate who, according to UVA Program Coordinator Maria Avalos, “will be looking into where ARPA funds in the county are going to, and making sure that it is being equally dispersed and going toward the Latino community and Spanish-speaking communities.”
Spending money to find out how the money is being spent is not one of the strategies that’s outlined in a National League of Cities guide on how to engage the public. The thesis of that document appears to be several variations on the theme, “The type of engagement is less important than the fact that the voice of the community is driving the conversation about how to deploy these ARPA funds.”
Avalos says that conversation needs to be taking place in Spanish, too. “Right now, with the pandemic ending, we are still focusing a lot on health equity,” she said. “How can we better get these services in Spanish, this information in Spanish?”
The county did distribute $754,155 to the Mendocino Community Foundation and North Coast Opportunities for food assistance (NCO), including staff salaries for program administration. NCO was awarded another $372,405 for financial assistance, including staff salaries. Molly Rosenthal, the NCO Communications Director, said the organization put some of that money towards keeping its eight Head Start childcare centers open during the shutdowns. In addition, she wrote,“ARPA covered stipends to childcare centers which allowed them to stay open or reopen safely during COVID. For Mendocino County, 32 childcare sites received stipends that covered PPE, test kits, cleaning supplies and other items that would be cost prohibitive for these small businesses already working off a shoe string budget.”
But almost $370,000 was spent to remodel the Board of Supervisors chambers, while another $35,370 has been committed to purchasing seven metal detectors. Supervisor Ted Williams, who is on the county’s budget ad hoc committee and is part of the internal working group that was formed to discuss potential funding needs for the ARPA money, said the county’s budget deficit is dire. “I think a lot of the ARPA funds will be used to balance the budget, to make ends meet,” he said. Without the ARPA funds, he said the county would be so short of funds that, “[w]e could stop road maintenance altogether…I wish we could treat the ARPA funds like we did the PG&E funds, but I don’t think that’s what the public wants.”
It’s not the first time the county has tried to use a one-time windfall to satisfy unfilled county needs.
Last March, the county executive office put out a list of proposed projects to fund with $22.6 million the county received from the PG&E settlement for the fires of 2017. The list, which consisted of capital improvement projects from the mid-year budget review, elicited outrage in the community. Over the course of six Board of Supervisors meetings and a series of public input sessions, the board hashed out how to spend the money, relying in part on advocacy from community groups and fire and water districts.
For the ARPA funds, Interim Mendocino County CEO Darcie Antle said board direction is to consider using $10 million to provide core county services and infrastructure. Another $300,000 is being considered to maintain county parks, particularly removing hazard trees from Bower Park in Gualala. The remaining $1.7 million could be used to hire new staff to pre-covid levels.
Julie Beardsley, an epidemiologist and the president of Local SEIU 1021, which represents most of the county government’s unionized workers, supports hiring qualified staff at a competitive wage to provide core services. And she’s open to investing the money in a variety of infrastructure projects and economic recovery efforts. But transparency is a priority, too. “I’d like to see some community input on what happens with these funds,” she said, after rattling off a few possibilities; “rather than having the county say, we have a deficit, so we have to backfill.”
Some infrastructure projects have been included in the funding, like $1.3 million for state mandated stormwater work. Close to a million dollars has been allocated to install fire hydrants with metered locks in Redwood Valley.
Jacqueline Orozco favors using some of the ARPA money to help out small businesses. As the publisher of Al Punto, a Spanish-language newspaper in Mendocino County, she is highly attuned to how the scarcity of information in Spanish affects the community. Even though “the hard time of the pandemic is already passed,” she said, many Latino-owned businesses are floundering without access to funds that they often don’t know are available. “They need support, but they don’t know where to find a person,” she said. “Always the struggle is that agencies don’t have a Spanish speaker available for those business owners when they call.”
On Wednesday, Interim CEO Darcie Antle sketched out a process for organizations to make their case for winning some of the money: send an email to email@example.com by May 23. The Board of Supervisors will set aside time during the budget hearings on June 7 and 8 to consider proposals. No public input sessions have been planned.
Molly Rosenthal of North Coast Opportunities provided more detail today about the sources of the ARPA funding NCO received and what it was used for. While NCO did receive $1.7 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding, some of it came from state and federal sources to support Head Start and Rural Communities Child Care. The County of Mendocino provided $587,560 of ARPA funds that NCO used the funds to rally more than 250 volunteers for the vaccine clinics, quarantine food delivery, and other pandemic response activities; deliver fresh food boxes to households through the MendoLake Food Hub; and provide financial assistance to households economically-impacted by the pandemic.
While applications are now closed for financial assistance, The City of Ukiah’s Utility Bill Assistance Program is providing support for Ukiah residents with past-due utility bills of up to $1,000. Visit cityofukiah.com for more information.