‘We are being very deliberate’: Portage County leaders debate how to spend their federal windfall

The flag of Portage County. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

With over $50 million in federal aid pouring into Portage County, several local officials said they were hoping to use the money to patch up infrastructure and bulk up department budgets.

In interviews with The Portager, local leaders said they were proceeding with caution, however, because the funds come with strings attached and many are still uncertain about what counts as an allowable use.

“There’s not a lot to offer in terms of projects,” said Susan Skrovan, fiscal officer for the village of Hiram. “They limited it to four uses and so there’s not much else we can do with it, and that’s the best use for our village because there’s always work in those fields to be done.”

The American Rescue Plan provides $1.9 trillion in economic relief to local governments in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The first installments have already been distributed. Trustees, city councils, and commissioners must budget the funds no later than Dec. 31, 2024, and then spend it by Dec. 31, 2026. It’s not as easy as it seems: Improperly spent money will have to be paid back, county Auditor Janet Esposito says.

Allowable uses for the funds include:

  • Supporting public health, such as Covid-19 mitigation efforts and certain public health and safety staff
  • Addressing negative economic impacts caused by the public health emergency, including economic harm to workers, households and small businesses
  • Replacing lost public sector revenue
  • Providing premium pay for essential workers
  • Investing in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure

Read our previous coverage of ARPA funding in Portage County

Streetsboro’s $1,726,087 ARPA allocation will flow into water line projects, city Finance Director Jenny Esarey said.

“From the beginning, I saw that water lines were an option. We need water lines, so that was my suggestion, and the mayor and council agreed with that,” she said.

Work may begin on specific projects next year.

“As long as they’re EPA allowed projects, they’re an allowable use for the money,” she said.

The city of Aurora is receiving $1,711,422 in two payments of $855,711.

“We are being very deliberate,” Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin said. “We intend to use $300,000 towards a very necessary dam repair project at Sunny Lake Park, and we will continue to explore options for the remaining ARPA funds.”

The dam on the east side of the lake has been failing for some time, and repairs done in the past year have only been temporary fixes, she said. Work is slated to be carried out in 2022.

The village of Windham is receiving $230,661 in two payments of $115,330.

To determine allowable uses, Windham Village Administrator Debbie Blewitt said she spent hours watching webinars. Then she turned to Village Solicitor Tom Reitz, who she said provided the most complete information. Turns out repairing or replacing sewer and water lines are allowable ARPA fund uses.

The village conducted a smoke study to find leaks in village sewer lines, and Blewitt said the entire amount may end up being spent repairing or replacing those lines.

“We’re kind of waiting, not knowing how much the project is going to cost,” Blewitt said.

If any funds remain, water projects are next in line, she said.

The village of Hiram, having already received $60,703 of its total $121,406 ARPA allocation, also plans to address storm drainage and water and sewer infrastructure.

Village leaders have not yet identified specific projects, said Skrovan, the fiscal officer.

Rootstown Township trustees are uncertain how their total $856,235 ARPA allotment may be spent. They’re relying on their legal counsel, Ravenna attorney Chad Murdoch.

Believing ARPA funds can be used for first responder salaries, Trustee Dave McIntyre has his eye on the township fire department.

“Hopefully we can get them to a spot where they’re a little bit ahead instead of always being behind,” he said, lauding Fire Chief Charles Palmer Jr. and the entire RFD roster for stepping up when the pandemic was at its worst and never backing down.

The trustees would also like to run sewer lines along some township roads and to Rootstown Community Park, and to replace the porta-potties there with real restrooms. Improvements and additions to the park’s walking trails, athletic fields and fishing ponds round out the wish list, though “everything we do we have to get run by legal council,” he said.

“If we run sewer, sewer’s going to take up quite a bit of that money. It’s a wait and see here with our attorney,” McIntyre said.

Suffield Township trustees have not made any concrete decisions as to how they plan on spending their two $327,294 ARPA infusions, one this year, and one in 2022.

“When you get that kind of money one time, you want to spend it the right way,” Trustee Jeff Eldreth said. “We’re still pretty rural. We don’t have sewer hardly anywhere, just in two allotments.”

Stipulations that center on enhancing infrastructure have the trustees somewhat stymied, but they will find “something to spend it on,” he promised.

According to the Ohio Township Association website, the distributions are as follows:

Atwater Twp: $283,770, in two payments of $141,885

Brimfield Twp: $1,082,078, in two payments of $541,039

Charlestown Twp: $191,694, in two payments of $95,847

City of Aurora: $1,711,422, in two payments of $855,711

City of Kent: $7,510,281 in two payments of $3,755,140

City of Ravenna: $1,190,076, in two payments of $595,038

City of Streetsboro: $1,726,087, in two payments of $863,043

Deerfield Twp: $295,921, in two payments of $147,960

Edinburg Twp: $270,048, in two payments of $135,024

Franklin Twp: $622,116, in two payments of $311,058

Freedom Twp: $298,435, in two payments of $149,217

Hiram Twp: $251,402, in two payments of $125,701

Mantua Twp: $503,328, in two payments of $251,664

Nelson Twp: $331,013, in two payments of $165,506

Palmyra Twp: $304,406, in two payments of $152,203

Paris Twp: $181,533, in two payments of $90,766

Randolph Twp: $553,504, in two payments of $276,752

Ravenna Twp: $963,919, in two payments of $481,959

Rootstown Twp: $856,235, in two payments of $428,117

Shalersville Twp: $591,948, in two payments of $295,974

Suffield Twp: $654,589, in two payments of $327,294

Village of Garrettsville: $242,498, in two payments of $121,249

Village of Hiram: $121,406 in two payments of $60,703

Village of Mantua: $106,846, in two payments of $53,423

Village of Sugar Bush Knolls: $19,169 in two payments of $9,584

Village of Windham: $230,661 in two payments of $115,330

Windham Twp: $194,732 in two payments of $97,366

Portage County: $31,556,000 in two payments of $15,778,000

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.