From the County Manager Column from March 16, 2021

Local help from the American Rescue Plan will come in many forms

For months we have been stating that local governments cannot meet the size and scale of the COVID-19 crisis response alone. I am pleased to report that those calls for help have been answered. Last Thursday, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 into law. The $1.9 trillion bill provides relief through several programs to help individuals, families and the economy as we continue to combat and recover from COVID-19.

Like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020, local governments will receive a significant share of funding in the new law, and Ramsey County’s allocation is about $108 million. Unlike CARES - which initially provided local governments with one-time distributions in March 2020 with a "use-it-or-lose-it" Dec. 30, 2020 deadline - the American Rescue Plan provides local governments with distributions of $54 million split over two years and more latitude in how to use the funds over a longer period of time.

In other words, this funding is being structured to help respond to, but also recover from, the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic fallout across our community. The bill has some important differences, and there is much we are still learning as I write this column. But I want to share with you what I can so that you can continue to learn about this important bill and its implications for our community and organization.

While everyone is focused on the direct allocations to local governments, it is important to think of American Recovery Program funds coming to Ramsey County as a math equation: $108 million + X = Support to Ramsey County residents. We all know that the first number, $108 million, represents the millions that will come to Ramsey County as part of a direct allocation. This funding can be used for a variety of important uses but in many ways should be thought of last.

But what about the X? The X represents all the other parts of the bill. It will include funds that go to families as stimulus checks, direct payments for households with children, food and basic needs support to community food banks and schools, testing and vaccination infrastructure, emergency rental assistance, as well as other areas we aren’t yet even sure of. Ultimately, going back to the formula, we are unable to fully determine the ways to best use the $108 million until we fully understand what is coming to our community as part of the X. That is the current work happening in our Incident Management Team and will be an important step over the coming weeks.

Last week, I wrote about some of the programs we were able to successfully create, launch and complete on behalf of our community within the tight CARES deadlines. I am so proud of your hard work and dedication to ramp those programs up at lightning speed. We learned an incredible amount from that experience in Ramsey County and these lessons – along with those learned by local governments of all sizes across the country – helped to inform and shape the American Rescue Plan.

I know there is some understandable anxiety across our organization that we are going to be jumping into a “CARES II” type of situation, but we have more room to plan over a longer time horizon than we did with our approach to distributing CARES funds. In addition, we will be collaborating with Saint Paul, metro counties and other local governments that received American Rescue Plan funds to ensure that every dollar is spent to maximum effect for long-term, sustained recovery. We continue to hear from community feedback and know from our own common sense that streamlined, consistent programs across jurisdictions make life easier for residents and businesses across our community and region.

Another difference between CARES and American Rescue Plan funds is that we can use these funds to replace lost revenue. Although property tax receipts were stable, we came up several million short in revenue in 2020 in areas like Parks & Recreation due to reduced use of fee-generating facilities and programs. As we review all of our options under the new law, we’ll be sharing our decision-making and investment priorities transparently just as we have done with our with CARES funds – through updates to our board of commissioners (watch the video from last week beginning at about 6:00), financial summaries, our open data portal and articles on RamseyNet.

You can expect a board workshop discussing initial priorities for the American Rescue Plan funds on April 13, and until that time, we plan to do our due diligence to understand every dollar that may be available to Ramsey County residents.

With the passing of the American Rescue Plan, vaccination doses exceeding the 100 million milestone, and Gov. Walz’s announcement last week dialing back some COVID-19 restrictions, there is an enormous and welcome focus on progress being made and a post-COVID recovery after a year of this battle. As we begin to feel relief in the first inklings of "returning to normal," it’s still critically important that we continue to practice the public health guidelines to safely get through this period of these next few months. Giving away progress now is the worst outcome for all of us, so we must all continue to do our part to model and behave in the way we hope those around us will too.

Next week, I plan to take a look back on a year of incredible effort and dedication from our Public Health team. I hope you have a good week – as always - and thank you for your hard work!