Erie County Council split over fund tracking

Millions of federal COVID recovery dollars are earmarked for Erie County.

But deciding how best to track, coordinate and leverage those funds has led county government leaders into a bind.

Here is the dilemma:

By June, Erie County is expected to receive about $26 million in federal stimulus assistance, the second half of a $52 million pot of American Rescue Plan Act funding given to the county.

To track these funds and ensure their proper use, Erie County Council, along with then-County Executive Administration Kathy Dahlkemper, in 2021 approved the creation of a so-called Community Futures Center.

The center, as proposed, would report to the Erie County Department of Community Planning and Development and would consist of one or more contract workers who would monitor the use of ARPA funds and ensure that they align with eligible projects.

The county council allocated $280,000 in ARPA funds to establish the center and placed the funds in a restricted account until a more detailed plan for the center’s scope of work and staffing was finalized.

To date, no such plan has been completed.

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Instead, Erie County Executive Brenton Davis is asking the county council to release the $280,000 to create a different entity: the Erie County Business and Economic Development Department.

Davis, who has touted economic development as the centerpiece of his new administration, said he wants the department to consist of three new county positions that not only track ARPA spending but also find opportunities investment through grants, matching funds and fundraising. other regions.

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As the Futures Center also sought to raise funds, the Davis department would be more aligned with its economic vision, boosting business, industry and infrastructure related to the multi-trillion dollar economy of the Great Lakes region. stretching from Cleveland to Buffalo.

County Administration Manager Doug Smith at a recent council meeting said investing in a long-term economic development department will bring “10 times the return on investment” to the area.

Some members of the County Council are not so convinced.

Erie County Council voted on February 2, 2022 to reject salary demands made by Erie County Executive Brenton Davis for three of its appointees.

“A Bowl of Raw Eggs”

Even after a two-hour business session Tuesday, in which Davis presented his vision for economic development to the board, Democratic members appeared skeptical.

“There were a lot more unanswered questions than answers — a lot of generalities, said Councilman Andre Horton, D-2nd Dist. “We would like to be able to make informed decisions, but at the moment I don’t think we can.”

Council Vice President Mary Rennie agreed, saying Davis was too vague.

“It’s like watching someone try to bake a cake and what we have is a bowl of raw eggs,” she said.

Rennie, D-3rd Dist., said a Futures Center could have been launched months ago and may already be looking for economic development opportunities. She said Davis was keen to create “another level of government”, a new department she described as “very speculative and terribly short on details”.

“If it benefits anyone, it seems likely it will be the ‘big investors’ that Mr. Davis keeps referring to,” she said.

Rennie also said the department, as proposed, would give Davis alarming control over the use of ARPA and other grants.

“Every county in the state and nation uses councils and authorities for economic development, and they do so for good reason,” she said. “We need transparency. We need public participation, accountability, expertise and certifications to be able to receive the funding we need. Voting for these new positions would give control to people who don’t belong there.”

Councilman Terry Scutella, D-1st Dist., also expressed concern that too much focus on economic development could distract from the intent of ARPA funds: to help those most destabilized by the pandemic. of COVID-19.

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The proposed economic development department would be supported by $280,000 in ARPA funds and an additional $50,000 from a grant from the national county associations, according to the administration.

Once those funds run out in a few years, Rennie said the department will become a burden on Erie County taxpayers.

“I think any sane, rational person would demand a lot more hard evidence and data before they invest their own hard-earned money in such a scheme,” she said.

“A Positive Direction”

Republican members of the board had a warmer view of Davis’s plans.

Board Chairman Brian Shank, R-5th Dist., said the Economic Development Department could operate as an effective hybrid, capable of tracking the use of ARPA funds like the Futures Center, but with a greater emphasis on economic development efforts.

“A mixture of both works and I think that’s fair,” he said.

Councilman Samuel Bayle agreed, saying he supports a comprehensive economic development plan for the county and believes “the county executive has the knowledge and insight to help prepare and execute a comprehensive plan.”

“He’s trying to move the whole county in a positive direction economically by mobilizing some of the bailout funds and I support him as well,” said Bayle, R-6th Dist.

The Davis administration informed the council that its economic development planning was being guided by urban policy expert Bruce Katz, and that funding for the new department would be eligible for ARPA spending guidelines – according to advice from the ARPA consultant of the county, Witt O’Brien’s, a specialist company. in risk assessment and management.

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Smith further pushed back against criticism that the administration did not provide details.

“Compared to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission, or the Rail Commission, which (collectively) received a total of $8 million, we think this provides more than any of those things,” said Smith.

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He added that the ARPA program is an economic development program and the administration will focus on individuals and businesses impacted by COVID-19.

“We believe that if you can give someone a job or secure jobs, keep them through the use of these funds, that’s absolutely one of the best things we can do for anyone” , Smith said.

And after?

The county council had a first reading on Tuesday of the order to release the $280,000 for the Futures Center, as well as the order to hire three positions in the proposed economic development department.

A second reading is scheduled for the next regular council meeting May 3 at 6 p.m. at the Erie County Courthouse.

Horton said he would be open to changing the wording of the metrics to better reflect the Futures Center’s original intent as the oversight mechanism for ARPA funds.

Councilman Jim Winarski, D-4th Dist., and Councilman Ellen Schauerman, R-7th Dist., said they had yet to make a decision on that after Tuesday’s business session.

“Although we have a 4-3 advantage over the county board in terms of Democrats and Republicans, the truth is that all they have to do is remove a Democrat,” Horton said of the announcement. ‘administration. “So we don’t know how the vote is going to go.”

AJ Rao can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ETNRao.

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