About nine months ago, county commissioners were promised $2.4 million in federal relief funds and basked in the luxury of a blank slate.
What worthy projects would they fund?
Think of it as a wish list of sorts — with a lot of wishes.
Multiple organizations stepped forward with requests for the money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Commissioners hired Thrive Allen County to help them prioritize the projects they wanted to help and administer the funds.
They made their wish list. Then they narrowed it. And narrowed it again.
Now, they’re trying to wring every penny and consider creative options to pay for as many projects as possible. If they approved everything still on their list, they’d be short by about $150,000.
Turns out, their top three projects took the bulk of the money — roughly $2 million.
Those projects were:
• A wireless communications tower for $875,000.
• Matching funds for a $4 million grant to upgrade infrastructure at the airport. The county’s portion is $968,965 and includes water system upgrades to Rural Water District No. 8.
• Six storm shelters for $254,490.
Those are all big projects the county may not have been able to otherwise afford. They’ll solve longtime problems, particularly in regard to protecting citizens. And they’ll offer opportunities for future growth and economic development.
“The original intent was to look at things that are normally outside your scope, to address how to make sure the county is prepared for the future,” Lisse Regher, Thrive CEO, told commissioners in an update on Tuesday morning.
In all, the county has already agreed to fund about eight projects worth $2,247,495. That includes Thrive’s administrative fee of $96,101.
It leaves $152,505 — and the county has seven more projects on the list worth about $300,000.
NEOSHO Rural Water District No. 2 wants $103,226.61 to help pay for 550 new meters to improve their aging water system, which covers the southeast corner of the county as well as parts of Neosho and Bourbon counties.
Bourbon and Neosho counties agreed to fund their portions, but Allen County uses about 46% of the system.
Lon Hale and Steve Kyser attended Tuesday’s meeting to press commissioners for a decision. They need to start ordering material now, and need to know if they can count on Allen County for help.
“This project will put our system in a more reliable condition. This project alone won’t get it done, but it is a good step,” Hale said. “If we could have a basic commitment, that would turn us loose to sign contracts and get moving.”
Commissioners were divided on the water district’s request for a quick answer.
Chairman Jerry Daniels and Commissioner Bruce Symes were willing to approve the project, pending the release of the second half of the ARPA money from the federal government. That’s expected to happen any day.
They overruled Commissioner David Lee, who wanted another week for Thrive to crunch the numbers and look into other funding options.
And they do have options.
Earlier in the meeting, Thrive’s economic development director Jonathon Goering told commissioners about opportunities to apply for part of a $5 billion federal infrastructure grant. Goering mentioned the grant in respect to improvements at the airport, but it could potentially apply to other projects as well.
Still, it’s too early to know if that will be realistic.
The county also hopes to shave savings off some projects. In some cases, Thrive used estimated figures. As the projects move forward and more exact costs are known, some projects will cost less. Some could cost more.
And if all else fails, they could use money from the Prairie Queen Wind Farm’s annual PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) or capital outlay to help pay for the airport grant’s matching funds.
IN THE MONTHS since commissioners and Thrive first compiled their priority list, things have changed.
A post-pandemic shortage in labor and supplies has made it difficult for some projects to move forward. County department leaders have run into issues finding contractors to do the work, and could potentially face increased costs.
Those issues could result in the projects being delayed and potentially bumped down the priority list.
For example, Public Works Director Mitch Garner asked the county to construct restrooms and concrete floors in three county barns. Initially, he estimated the cost at $81,680.25.
Garner is waiting for an updated cost estimate. He expects it will be higher.
Commissioners asked Garner if the project is a priority. He said it is.
Other pending projects include: the installation of a 911 backup system, security barriers in the treasurer’s and clerk’s offices, updating restrooms at the Southwind Extension District building, and a record digitization project for the register of deeds office.