Washington County Board goes with Bellwether to consult with ARPA funds

Editor’s note: This is the first in several installments from the July Washington County Board meeting. More in this series will be posted this week.

After quite a bit of discussion, the Washington County Board moved forward with Bellwether to consult with the allocated American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The vote came during the board’s regular monthly meeting on Tuesday. Before the decision, Washington County Treasurer Natalie Lynch, who had discussed the ARPA in her earlier report. In March, she said she was informed that Washington County is expected to receive $2,697,387 in two portions and was based on the county’s population. The first, which totaled half the funds, was received in May, she said, and were immediately put in a separate account..

Before the decision, which had been previously tabled, came to a vote, EMA Coordinator Matt Bierman approached the board and asked them to consider keeping the funds in-house.

“It’s your money, however you want to spend it,” Bierman said. “You want to spend $20,000 over two years when you’ve already got somebody that you already pay. It’s my job to handle this money. It’s recovery money.”

Bellwether LLC has entered into agreements with 43 other Illinois counties to help them handle the upcoming funds, including most recently Jefferson County.

Earlier in the meeting, Bierman had discussed that his office had recovered $260,000 to date and more was expected. He said he is not sure why other counties have gone ahead with the firm.

“It’s in plain black and white,” he said. “And if you have any questions, you can ask me.”

Lynch then spoke up about the matter.

“I am the treasurer. I am the person who is supposed to handle the money for the county,” Lynch said. “I had to apply for the money and I have to accept it on the county’s behalf.”

Lynch said while there has been guidance that has been handed down since the announcement, she believes that time needs to be taken to make sure that the money is spent appropriately and in a way that best serves the county.

“With regard to Bellwether, what we are purchasing is their guidance,” she said. “They have staff who can examine what is allowable and what is not allowable.”

Lynch said the ARPA funds are short term and are to be allocated by December 2024. If the funds are allocated but not spent, the county could be allowed another two years. She said the four main categories are COVID-19 mitigations and its negative economic impacts, premium pay for eligible workers, recoupment of loss revenue and investments in infrastructure, specifically in water, sewer and broadband.

County Clerk Nancy Heseman said during the meeting that the ARPA funds would pay for the Bellwether consulting, which accounts for $5,000 per year. 

“It is the treasurer’s responsibility,” Heseman said. “This is a lot of money. It has to be handled correctly. There has to be proper documentation.”

Heseman also said that the board should consider that the federal monies are a completely different “ball of wax” from other grants previously received. She stressed the need to keep money in a separate account and out of the county’s general fund.

“No one is really educated on it yet,” she said.

Gary Malawy of Krehbiel and Associates advised the board that the Bellwether consultation could help Washington County from incurring more costs that could be possible if they qualified for a single audit.

The vote passed 10-2 with board members Victor Shubert and Leo Barczewski voting no on the matter. 

In other county financial news, the board approved the 2021 audit. Malawy said in an overview, the country received $586,000 more in grants than the previous year. 

Malawy also informed the board that the county has continued to use revenue from the Prairie State ash-pile to the general fund, and without that source, the county would have lost $286,000.

“We are using funds from Prairie State that are earmarked for infrastructure projects and transferring them into this fund,” Malawy said.

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