Warren County weighing broadband, childcare provider programs with ARPA funds this year

Editor’s Note: This story is part of a Dayton Daily News series tracking how dozens of our area’s largest governments are spending hundreds of millions of dollars combined from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. Visit our “Billions in COVID aid: Where it’s going” special section on our website to see summaries from other communities.

With Warren County receiving nearly $46 million from the federal American Rescue Plan, officials say they’ll be able to fund over 20 different projects that are spread across the county both geographically and by topic.

“We pretty much accounted for it all in some form or fashion, knowing that it had to be appropriated by 2024 and fully spent by 2026,” said Warren County Deputy Administrator Martin Russell.

So far, the county has actually spent about $25.3 million in varying ways, such as covering county wages during the pandemic, upgrading public services like the county water softener, providing staff computers and software to allow flexible work environments in response to COVID, and supporting local nonprofits.

A significant portion of the county’s ARPA funds are set aside for projects this year, including $3.5 million already earmarked to go toward Middletown’s planned $160 million residential, commercial, sports and event complex.

Russell said he expects both pros and cons to come from the money granted to local governments through ARPA, adding that its impact has “got to be looked at both ways.”

“It did give communities the opportunity to find projects to invest in,” Russell said. “But, I don’t think it’s lost on some of our board members that when our families are continuing to experience high inflation, it’s probably partially caused by this money coming out.”

Russell said that once Warren County was granted the $46 million in ARPA funds, officials took the opportunity to fund projects that had been in the works while also working to come up with solutions for areas of need that previously had to go unaddressed.

“Once it was in our hands, we wanted to make sure that we used it to the best of our ability to assist as many things as possible,” Russell said. “You needed to be very proactive with it, you needed to be cognizant of it, and you needed to sit there and serve the constituents to the best of your ability.”

Broadband, county wages, tax relief

Russell said ARPA funding might allow the county to build out its broadband access to further accommodate folks who work from home or attend school online, adding that a lack of internet access was a problem that became exacerbated by the demands of COVID distancing.

Warren County used about $19,000 on a broadband consultant, and has earmarked $5 million to complete the project, pending final approval. Russell said final approval of the project is hinged on finding the right private partner for the right price point.

There are several other projects underway in Warren County that are expected to eventually require more investment. For example, the county is looking into whether the health department is in need of a move, while also exploring the possibility of investing more funds into attracting more affordable childcare providers to the county through a scholarship program.

“If (those projects) go through the process, we’ll use those dollars. If, for some reason (they) go south, then that will be excess (funding) and we’ll figure out ways to allocate them,” Russell said.

So far, the county’s largest expenditures have gone toward offsetting wages at the county level. Warren County spent $2.6 million in wages for essential workers and another $9.7 million in wages and benefits for correctional officers in Warren County Sheriff’s Office.

“Corrections officers were in constant contact with the public during the height of the pandemic, and the county used funds to cover the cost of salaries/benefits for their work as safety officers,” Russell said.

Additionally, $6.4 million went toward an upgrade that is now bringing softened water to 10 new localities in Warren County.

Russell said ARPA dollars strengthened Warren County’s general fund, which allowed the county to pass down benefits to its residents through measures like property tax relief, which he said saved residents “millions of dollars collectively.”

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