STANTON — In discussing how to pay for a county pandemic readiness building, one thing became clear during Monday’s Montcalm County Commissioners Committee-of-the-Whole meeting — the sooner federal relief dollars are spent, the better.
During Monday’s meeting, commissioners agonized over what funding sources to use on the building during a back-and-forth discussion with Emergency Medical Services Director Eric Smith.
The conversation came forward following a decision by the commissioners last month to award a $1.5 million bid to Horn Construction to build a pandemic readiness building as proposed by Smith and Montcalm County Drain Commissioner Todd Sattler.
The root of the discussion came down to a past pledge from Smith — made prior to American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds being available — to put forward $500,000 toward what was at the time a $1 million project.
However, following the coronavirus pandemic, plans were changed to alter the new EMS building to also be utilized as a pandemic readiness building.
That change in plans saw the cost balloon from $1 million to $1.5 million.
It also changed the conversation in how the building would be paid for.
Last month, Sattler said he didn’t believe EMS was going to pay its portion anymore in light of the county receiving ARPA money; however, on Monday, Smith said he was now willing to contribute “up to” $700,000 from his budget toward the project, with the remaining costs to be covered by the county’s ARPA funds.
However, this figure didn’t sit well with everyone.
To start, Commissioner Adam Petersen said he wasn’t comfortable with the language from Smith including “up to.”
“When this all started, you said you were willing to put in $500,000 for a $750,000 building,” he said. “What happened between now and then, where you can’t put in that $500,000?”
Smith clarified himself, stating the reason he utilized the phrase “up to” was because that is the amount he budgeted for, meaning if $700,000 didn’t need to be spent, it wouldn’t be.
“That’s on top of the $1 million in COVID dollars,” he added.
However, County Controller-Administrator Brenda Taeter said she’d prefer that the entire project be paid for through the county’s ARPA funds.
“We’ve made a big deal about his share of the building being paid for so it’s not going to affect taxpayer dollars … Wouldn’t we rather use ‘free’ money, so to speak?” she asked.
Petersen, however, said he would rather honor Smith’s commitment toward the project.
“If he said he’s going to put in $700,000, personally, I’m good with that going forward,” he said. “That’s been my point from the beginning — it’s all taxpayer dollars. Regardless if it’s EMS or ARPA, it comes from the taxpayers one way or the other.”
After considering both methods of paying for the project, Commission Chairman Patrick Q. Carr said he was inclined to follow the advice of Taeter.
“Adam makes a good point, it’s all taxpayer dollars — we shouldn’t be beating the drum that it’s not taxpayer dollars — but seeing as she’s the chief financial officer and balances all of this for us, I’d be curious to have her expand on her thoughts of why you just assume to pay for it all out of ARPA.”
Taeter said she’d rather see the county’s ARPA funds be spent now, as opposed to held on for other projects in the future.
“My thought is just to get that money used up I guess, for it to be clean,” she said. “It’s going to be one lump sum to one vendor for us. I can make it work (with two funding sources), but it just might not be as easy.”
Commissioner Michael Beech, however, said he favored the idea of leaving some ARPA funds available to pay for other county requests, such as updating radios for county fire departments to 800 mhz — a request of about $400,000.
“I think we need to make sure we have money for things like that,” he said. “I’m hearing from my constituents in other townships that this needs to happen.”
However, Taeter cautioned the Commissioners from quickly honoring another request for ARPA funds at this time.
“Our last meeting I asked how you wanted me to handle future ARPA requests, but I didn’t get anything,” she said. “I thought the ‘ARPA bank’ was closed for now and that we were putting the brakes on it and taking a breather.”
Petersen then stated he would like to see the pandemic readiness building project completed with $1 million in ARPA funds and $700,000 in EMS funds, resulting in at least $200,000 in contingency from the EMS fund.
“I think both of the main beneficiaries of that building are in agreement that $200,000 would be enough to outfit the building,” he said.
With Horn Construction confirming it would not be problematic to hire various contractors and subcontractors utilizing two different funding sources, both Taeter and the majority of commissioners were on Board with Petersen’s proposal.
Commissioners then voted 6-1, with commissioners Phil Kohn and Scott Painter absent and Chris Johnston opposed, to recommend to the full Board of Commissioners that the $1.5 million project be funded with $1 million in county ARPA funds and $700,000 in EMS funds.
Johnston told the Daily News he voted against the motion because he supported funding the entire project with ARPA funds.
“Eric lowered the EMS millage this year — he didn’t levy any millage — and I thought, in our best interest, it would be a good thing for us to pay for the entire building (with ARPA funds),” he said.