How will Smith County spend $45 million from the American Rescue Plan Act?

Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran and Smith County commissioners look at their top priorities for spending the COVID economic stimulus.

Smith County Commissioner’s Court has begun the process to determine how the county will spend the estimated $45 million through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of March 2021. 

At their June 15th meeting, commissioners addressed the use of the act’s funds during a workshop agenda item. Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran gave a detailed presentation outlining eligible uses for the funds and led a discussion with commissioners over potential projects to consider at the distribution of the $45 million ARPA funds.

Eligible uses for ARPA funds broadly encompass expenditures for public health including mental health, negative economic impact, lost public sector revenue, essential worker pay, and investment in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

Moran told the commissioners, “I don’t intend to convey onto each one of you what your feelings are or for this body as a whole, but it works best if we have a starting point, and I would like to provide those to you if you are willing to let me go forward.”

Moran outlined a  suggested process to guide their decisions, including creating an internal ARPA task force; creating an information landing page with a link to a suggestion form on the Smith County webpage where residents may submit input to the task force; coordinating with cities in Smith County; and the Commissioners Court holding follow-up workshops. 

Moran moved to his final proposal for suggested priorities of potential projects. It focused on road and bridge infrastructure, funds for a new courthouse and a new mental health facility.

As for road and bridge infrastructure Moran said, “If ultimately the (ARPA) regulations allow us to do [this], remember our road and bridge bond in November is likely going to be about $45 million. Ironically, we’re getting about $45 million from the federal government. It would be, I think in my mind, a really great opportunity to say to the public, ‘We are going to use those $45 million in lieu of a road and bridge bond and save your taxpayer money.’” 

If road and bridge infrastructure is not allowed with ARPA funds, Moran said he would like to “press forward to see if there are possible ways for us to utilize a majority of that $45 million as a supplement to courthouse construction.” 

Moran also said a mental health facility is a top priority and will be beneficial. “Even if we did the road and bridge construction or the courthouse construction, I think there would be funds for us to provide a significant investment in a mental health facility. I don’t think we want to pass up that opportunity. And that clearly fits within the auspices of ARPA.” 

Moran added that he and Commissioner Franklin have been working on the mental health facility issue for several months and recently visited a facility in Travis County.

Commissioner Terry Phillips expressed concern with the mental health facility, since operating the facility in future years would be an added expense to taxpayers. 

Commissioner JoAnn Hampton said given her research, she was “not sure” about road and bridge or courthouse construction being eligible for ARPA funds. Hampton said the regional mental health facility should be the top priority, citing mental health issues evident in the jail population. 

Hampton also wanted broadband moved into tier one priorities, citing the number of students in rural unincorporated areas who were unable to access the internet for remote learning during the pandemic.

Commissioner Neal Franklin said that if a citizen survey were done, road and bridge would “by far be the top priority.” Also, the mental health facility is a top priority for Franklin. 

Commissioner Hampton wanted to hear more information about using ARPA funds for economic development for small businesses. “We had a lot of mom-and-pop businesses go out of business. Are there some things we can do — help with a business plan, grants and loans – to assist in getting their businesses back up and running?” 

Commissioners Cary Nix and Phillips speculated the federal government will be allocating other funds for road and bridge infrastructure making it less of a priority for ARPA funds.

To conclude, Moran assured the court he would give the process due diligence and would come back to the court when there was something meaningful to discuss or update. 

August 31, 2021 is the deadline for counties to submit their first interim reports to the U.S. Treasury. 

Resource Links:

To watch the June 15, 2021, commissioners’ court meeting including the ARPA presentation and workshop.,3225

To view the full ARPA PowerPoint presentation

Smith County Commissioner’s Court ARPA information page

Brenda McWilliams is retired after nearly 40 years in education and counseling. When not traveling she fills her days with community, charitable, and civic work; photography; writing and blogging at Pilgrim Seeker Heretic; reading, babysitting grandchildren, and visiting with friends. She enjoys walking at Rose Rudman or hiking at Tyler State Park. Brenda and her spouse, Lou Anne Smoot, the author of Out: A Courageous Woman’s Journey, have six children and seven grandchildren between them.

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