Nonprofit groups frustrated by Washington County on covid relief spending

American Rescue Plan

The American Rescue Plan provides $350 billion in federal money for eligible state, local, territorial and tribal governments nationwide to offset the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, according to information from the Treasury Department. Washington County received about $23 million in 2021 under the plan and expects to receive another $23 million this year. Benton County will receive a total of about $54 million — $27 million per year in 2021 and 2022.

Source: NWA Democrat-Gazette

FAYETTEVILLE — Sadness and frustration were among the words used by the directors of a pair of nonprofit organizations to describe their interaction with Washington County government over the use of the county’s $46 million in American Rescue Plan money.

“It’s frustrating because I feel like there are no straight answers, they talk around it,” April Bachrodt said of her efforts to access some of the county’s share of American Rescue Plan money for the Magdalene Serenity House.

Washington County has no process allowing organizations to apply for the money. An ordinance that would have set aside a percentage of the rescue plan money for nonprofit organizations and have the county set up a procedure for accepting and reviewing applications for funding was proposed last year by Jim Wilson, justice of the peace for District 14, but it never moved past the committee stage. In February, the Quorum Court passed an ordinance declaring that county government-related expenditures would be the first priority for the relief money.

Magdalene Serenity House provides services for women who have been incarcerated to help them break the cycle of arrest and incarceration. Bachrodt said the organization is about four years old and has room for up to eight women in its primary, two-year residential program.

Residents receive services for mental and physical health needs, including counselling, medical and dental care, assistance with application for benefits, job and education readiness, legal advocacy, and life skills training, according to the group’s website.

Bachrodt said the program is working and needs to expand, but money is needed to renovate a recently acquired residence to house more women. Since January, she said, the program has contacted 62 women who were being released from the Northwest Arkansas Community Corrections Center in Fayetteville and 45 of them met the qualifications for the services offered by Magdalene Serenity House.

She said the group managed to raise the purchase price of an adjacent house and property and has about $74,000 in hand for renovation work, but the cost to renovate the house has been estimated at $168,000.

Bachrodt said the organization relies on grants and contributions from donors to operate, leaving little money for the expansion project. She said the possible infusion of money from the county’s rescue plan funds would speed up the process. She has been hosting justices of the peace on tours of the facility to try to persuade them of its value.

“I want them to see what can be done and that jail and prison is not the only way,” she said. “There are compassionate ways to help these women.”

The Quorum Court has declared county government needs will be the priority for the money and nonprofit groups may be able to apply for any money that remains.

The Quorum Court has also discussed paying for an $18 million-$20 million jail expansion using the rescue plan money and has also discussed a $5 million expansion of the county’s Juvenile Justice Center. With expenditures already approved, those projects would use most or all of the county’s remaining money.

Information from Washington County shows the Quorum Court used about $6.3 million from the American Rescue Plan fund’s 2021 budget, with about $5.3 million being for premium pay and bonuses for county employees. The county returned about $292,000 of that money to the fund in January after it was not spent in 2021. The money from the 2021 American Rescue Plan budget also included $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 $12.9 million from the American Rescue Plan fund’s 2022 budget so far. That total includes about $5.4 million to buy self-contained breathing apparatus and equipment for 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, $315,000 to continue a contract with Returning Home to help men with parole violations avoid reincarceration, and about $4.9 million in premium pay for county employees.

The Quorum Court has also approved transferring $10 million of the county’s $23 million in 2022 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.

Patrick Deakins, justice of the peace for District 5 and chairman of the Finance and Budget Committee, said he supports the use of the federal relief money for the jail project and is comfortable with the bulk of the money going there.

“There is a potentially infinite amount of needs the county could use that money for,” he said. “We’ve already earmarked money for Central Emergency Medical Services, for rural fire service and other county services. The landscape that I see right now, I would think it would be very unlikely we would have any money left over for the nonprofits.”

Monique Jones heads up the food pantry program operated by St. James Missionary Baptist Church. Jones said she was contacted by county officials and asked to present information about the needs of the community, but once she did so, the county showed no interest in providing financial assistance through the American Rescue Plan money.

“It saddens me, but I’ve lost hope that we will get anything,” Jones said. “I never wanted to be seen as if we were begging for money. They contacted me. Then the phone calls just stopped, the emails just stopped.”

Jones said she was trying to raise money for a walk-in cooler for the food pantry program. She said the church has raised the $130,000 needed for the cooler through donations from St. James, St. Paul Lutheran Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank and the Arkansas Hunger Alliance.

Jones said while the money for the cooler has been raised, the need to keep the food pantry stocked is still growing. She said the pantry was assisting about 75 families a week before the covid-19 pandemic and that number has grown to more than 650 families a week. Much of the food is donated in bulk, and fresh fruits, vegetables and other perishables may have to be stored for days.

“Every dollar we did not have to spend on the cooler would’ve been money we could have spent on food,” she said.

Suki Highers, justice of the peace for District 11, has argued unsuccessfully for the county to hold back on spending the federal money until a process could be set up to allow for applications and for those applications to be reviewed and acted on by the Quorum Court .

Highers said she thinks the majority on the 15-member Quorum Court has decided to use the money for county government rather than for community needs.

“I’m not at all hopeful that any of this money is going to go to direct community relief, which is what it was intended for,” Highers said. “I’ve been very disappointed about that.”

Highers said she has seen legal opinions from other places indicating the rescue plan money can’t be used for jail or prison expansions and is worried that Washington County could have to repay any money used on the jail expansion project. She said requests the county seek an outside legal opinion of its own have been ignored.

“They have this goal in mind, and they’re going to do whatever they need to get it,” Highers said of those backing the use of the money for the jail expansion. “If there are consequences, they’ll have to be dealt with later. But this decision is going to be made by a ‘lame-duck’ session of the Quorum Court. There are going to be at least six new people on the court next year. The people who are going to have to clean up the mess aren’t going to have any say in it.”

Benton County has taken a different course in spending its $54 million in rescue plan money. County Judge Barry Moehring said the Quorum Court has set up a special committee of all 15 justices of the peace and that group met Monday and Thursday to review those requests.

Benton County has spent or obligated about $17 million out of its $54 million in rescue money. The county has received 57 applications for about $89 million funding from nongovernmental organizations and county government needs.

The justices of the peace agreed that a proposed jail expansion was the highest priority among the requests being considered, Moehring said. Moehring said the county could use the $10 million it has been allowed to set aside in a Revenue Replacement Fund similar to Washington County’s for the jail project. Moehring said the county could use $10 million from existing county reserves and possibly use another $10 million from rescue plan funds for approved uses including medical and mental health facilities and services at the jail and for a proposed courts facility at the same site plus improvements to air -handling systems and other measures aimed at improving the jail’s ability to deal with covid-19 or other health problems.

Moehring said the justices of the peace on Thursday approved spending about $1.6 million on county projects, mostly stormwater and drainage improvements. He said the committee will continue discussing requests from nonprofits and other government projects at a future meeting.

Monique Jones, director of outreach for St. James Missionary Baptist Church, speaks Friday, April 1, 2022, about her desire to install a cooler for food storage at the church?s food pantry in Fayetteville. Visit nwaonline.com/220403Daily/ for today’s photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
photo Monique Jones, director of outreach for St. James Missionary Baptist Church, speaks Friday, April 1, 2022, about her desire to install a cooler for food storage at the church?s food pantry in Fayetteville. Visit nwaonline.com/220403Daily/ for today’s photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
photo Rosevelt McClendon moves a pallet of boxes of fruit Friday, April 1, 2022, at St. James Missionary Baptist Church?s food pantry in Fayetteville. Visit nwaonline.com/220403Daily/ for today’s photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

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