December 4, 2023

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Washington County considers $2.3 million in covid relief money for nonprofits

FAYETTEVILLE — Washington County’s justices of the peace on Thursday discussed making $2.3 million from the county’s remaining covid relief funds available to nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations.

The Quorum Court’s County Services Committee discussed setting aside money provided to the county under the American Rescue Plan Act but took no action.

Sam Duncan, justice of the peace for District 7 and committee chairman, said County Judge Joseph Wood asked that the justices of the peace consider making the money available.

The county received about $23 million in ARPA money last year and another $23 million in 2022.

Brian Lester, county attorney and chief of staff for Wood, said about $29 million in American Rescue Plan Act money remains unallocated.

Brandi Wilhite, the county’s ARPA director, told the committee the county is contracting with the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District in Harrison to set up an application process for the money. The county will pay the Economic Development District up to $30,000 to review the applications and determine whether the requests meet federal guidelines. Those that do will be presented to the County Services Committee for consideration.

Wilhite said the process for applying will be posted on the county website once it is finalized.

Several members of the public spoke and urged the justices of the peace to consider organizations that have been working through the covid pandemic to help people in the community with basic needs.

Monique Jones, with St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Fayetteville, said the county has spent money without having a process allowing for equal consideration for all applicants. She said St. James has continued to operate a food bank throughout the pandemic with the numbers of people being served increasing tremendously.

The Quorum Court used about $5.3 million for premium pay and bonuses for county employees in 2021. The county returned about $292,000 of that money to the fund in January after it was not spent in 2021. The Quorum Court also allocated $250,000 for design work on a proposed expansion of the jail and $250,000 for design work on a possible expansion of the Juvenile Justice Center. Another $250,000 was appropriated for new electronic poll books for the Washington County Election Commission. The justices of the peace also approved spending about $265,000 for remodeling and new furniture for the County Assessor’s Office.

The justices of the peace have also appropriated about $5.4 million to buy self-contained breathing apparatus and equipment for the rural fire association, $2.9 million to support the Upskill NWA jobs program, about $1.5 million for new ambulances and equipment for Central Emergency Medical Services and $315,000 to continue a contract with Returning Home to help men with parole violations avoid reincarceration.

The Quorum Court has also approved transferring $10 million of the county’s American Rescue Plan money to a special Revenue Replacement fund. That money has fewer restrictions on its use than the money remaining in the rescue plan fund.

Jones said she had worked through the process put in place by Fayetteville and she will work through whatever process the county adopts.

“I’ll jump the ropes, I’ll jump through the hoops for my community,” Jones said.

Beth Coger of Fayetteville, justice of the peace-elect from District 9, said the county should make more money available to nonprofits and community organizations. She suggested the justices of the peace increase the amount being made available to “at least” $5 million.

Also Thursday, the Quorum Court’s Finance & Budget Committee met to continue working on the county’s 2023 budget.

The justices of the peace reviewed budgets for the county assessor; the Circuit Court Division I, Division V and Division VI budgets; and the Public Defender’s Office.

The budget request for the Public Defender’s Office generated the most discussion as the budget calls for increasing money for part-time law clerks from $32,000 to $97,500.

Leana Houston, chief deputy for the Public Defender’s Office, told the committee the request was worked out in conjunction with the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to achieve parity between the two offices. Houston said the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has five part-time law clerks who are paid $15 an hour and can work up to 25 hours a week.

“This is the exact same numbers the Prosecuting Attorney has,” Houston said of the Public Defender’s Office request.