Now that all applications have been filed, the Luzerne County Council must decide which outside entities will receive US bailout funding.
Approximately $95.9 million remains in unallocated American Rescue County funds for projects and programs.
Council vice-chairman John Lombardo said he and his 10 colleagues must come up with a well-defined evaluation process and firm timelines as soon as possible so that funds can be disbursed to meet public needs.
If requests exceed available funds, the council could be forced to make tough decisions and turn down some worthy projects, he said.
Lombardo doesn’t want to end up resorting to the council’s earmarking approach in 2016, when he received 16 requests far exceeding the $70,782 he had for rewards from leftover natural gas recreation funding.
Instead of fully funding a few projects, a majority council provided small equal shares to all 16 so that none were left behind. Then-City Councilor Robert Schnee proposed the approach after predicting that the 11-member body could spend hours debating the merits of each request and still unable to reach a majority consensus.
In American Rescue’s next selection, the board should first consider applications within the county government that meet the eligibility criteria, Lombardo said.
He and several other council members have already said publicly that county projects should be given top priority because they ease pressure on future county budgets and benefit the county as a whole.
The county has received 140 U.S. bailout applications, but they have not been released as a consultant determines which ones meet strict federal requirements.
Booth Management Consulting, based in Columbia, Md., which performs this eligibility check, is due to provide an initial briefing during the board’s business session on Tuesday, which follows a 6 p.m. voting meeting at the city’s courthouse. River Street County in Wilkes-Barre.
During a pre-application process earlier this year, the county received more than $186.8 million in funding requests — $171.58 million from more than 100 outside entities and 15.26 million from county government departments, the administration said.
All American Rescue funds must be spent by the end of 2026. However, some counties and local governments require recipients to complete their projects by mid-2024 to ensure the deadline is met and let the time to choose replacements if approved projects fail, in consultation with company chief Robin Booth, the board had advised.
Councilman Brian Thornton said he was considering a fair selection process for American Rescue funding and natural gas funding. Thornton chairs the council’s Act 13 committee, which makes recommendations on natural gas allocations.
Thornton has scheduled the first meeting of this year’s Act 13 Committee for 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the courthouse to discuss awarding awards from a remaining balance that will be counted before the meeting.
While the council didn’t end up providing natural gas allocations last year, Thornton said that funding is generally available to award prizes each year, warranting a different approach from the one-time windfall of AmericanRescue.
Regarding natural gas funding, Thornton said he will recommend accepting recreation-related applications from municipalities and other outside entities, ranking them, and then awarding prizes to the best on the list based on money available this year.
Worthy projects not funded this year would then remain at the top of the list for next year’s funding under its proposed plan. New requests could be added each year, creating a priority list as funds become available, Thornton said.
Thornton said he disagreed with the board’s 2016 equal split solution for natural gas allocations because outside entities may not be able to complete projects without the requested amount, which which would defeat the purpose.
Regarding the American Rescue decision, he proposed that the board create a committee to evaluate the applications and make recommendations to all 11 members.
Thornton suggests that council members from different parts of the county sit on the committee so there is no accusation that one area has an advantage.
Like Lombardo, it backs eligible county projects first while a significant portion would still be left for outside allocations.
In Thornton’s view, preference should go to outside entities offering programs that will address the negative academic and mental health impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think everyone should stay focused on why this money was given to us. It was really meant to help organizations or individuals who have suffered setbacks in life due to COVID. Everyone has experienced setbacks, but some groups suffered more than others,” Thornton said.
He pointed to reports of children struggling academically and psychologically due to the pandemic, saying he believed some entities had submitted requests to meet those needs.
Thornton said he wholeheartedly supports the recreation projects, but personally doesn’t think they should be top candidates for American Rescue funding because the county has the option of allocating natural gas. and state subsidies are also available for recreation.
He agreed that the board needed to move quickly to put a plan in place.
The county administration offered to help the council by evaluating and recommending projects, but this investment of resources would not be necessary if the council took the initiative.
According to county summaries, American Rescue funding was intended to “lay the foundation for a strong and equitable economic recovery” after the pandemic and can be used for a variety of purposes, including water and sanitation infrastructure projects. sewers, broadband upgrades, public health programs. and assistance to small businesses and nonprofits, officials said.
Instructions for attending the Tuesday council meeting and Thursday Act 13 committee meeting remotely are posted under the online council meeting link on luzernecounty.org.
Contact Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.