Santa Cruz County will put the last $1.7 million of its federal COVID-19 relief funds into renovations at the County Complex after the board of supervisors turned down requests to share it with two local fire districts or purchase new technology for the county assessor.
The county has already distributed the rest of its approximately $9 million in American Rescue Plan Act money to a variety of projects, including a forgivable loan program for small businesses and an internet expansion initiative.
The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a federal stimulus package, funneled money to local communities in an effort to offset some of the economic and public health effects of the pandemic. Local governments – like Santa Cruz County and the City of Nogales – decided how to distribute the cash.
During a public meeting last Tuesday, the County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a plan to allocate about $1.7 million of its remaining ARPA funds: $1 million will be used to repair the heating, ventilation and air conditioning of the County Complex. Another $100,000 will fund fire suppression and $450,000 will be allocated toward roof repair. A final $150,000 will fund the construction of an employee parking barrier at the County Courthouse.
The overall spending plan, labeled on county documents as Option 1, leaves just a sliver of ARPA funds – $31,000 – left over.
The three supervisors had considered several options for the last of the COVID relief funds. One arrangement had sought to fund a geographical information system for the County Assessor’s Office.
Another plan had included funding for the Tubac and Sonoita-Elgin fire districts.
The supervisors did not discuss any rationale behind their preference for Option 1. Moments before the vote, however, the board held a study session, during which County Supervisor Manuel Ruiz seemed to suggest the Option 1 spending plan would pass.
“We’re going to have about $31,000 left,” he said about 10 minutes before the vote took place. The proposal for renovations at the County Complex was the only option that included a $31,000 surplus.
Ruiz made a motion to approve the plan, leading to a quick and unanimous approval.
Since receiving the $9 million, Santa Cruz County has allocated the money to a number of economic stimulus projects.
Toward the end of 2021, the county used some of its ARPA funds for a vaccine incentive program, offering government employees a $500 bonus to get the shots.
In January 2022, the county put $1 million toward an internet expansion initiative with service provider Valley Telecommunications. The ongoing project will install fiber optic infrastructure in an effort to serve residents in Patagonia, Sonoita and Elgin.
Last May, the county used $500,000 of its ARPA funds to allocate grants to 16 local nonprofits. Then, come October, more than 70 businesses received forgivable loans through the county – totalling around $1 million. To receive the funds, eligible nonprofits and businesses underwent a months-long application process.
While last Tuesday’s study session unfolded with the usual calm of County Board of Supervisors meetings, one resident asserted that he’d felt excluded from the process.
“I felt very set aside,” said Marcelino Varona, Jr.
Speaking during the session, Varona requested that the county allocate $30,000 of its remaining ARPA funds to the Santa Cruz Council on Aging, an organization whose community center provides meals and other services for elderly residents.
Still, the supervisors noted one glaring fact: Varona had never applied for any ARPA funds in the first place.
“I didn’t apply. And I’ll tell you why I didn’t apply,” Varona said. “It was very evident to me that there was already a decision made of who you wanted to give the money to.”
“That being the arts,” he later added. “I mean, if you look at the funding that was recommended you can see where basically the money went to.”
However, the funding was awarded to a wide variety of nonprofits, including a housing justice organization, an environmental restoration group and an after-school program for local children. Some arts organizations, like the Santa Cruz Advocates for the Arts and the Cultural Art Committee of Nogales, received funding, though they did not make up the bulk of the grant recipients.
What’s more, the supervisors emphasized that they hadn’t chosen the organizations themselves – instead, they’d handed the responsibility off to the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, who selected the grant recipients.
“I’m sorry you felt that way,” Supervisor Bruce Bracker told Varona. “But the spectrum of nonprofits across Santa Cruz County that received funding, it was a really broad spectrum.”
With $31,000 left in the county’s ARPA reserve, Ruiz wondered aloud whether Varona could apply now for the funding.
County Manager Jennifer St. John, who serves on the board at the Council on Aging, noted that allowing Varona to apply after-the-fact would set a “dangerous precedent.”
“We obviously can look at that, but there are nonprofits that met the deadlines that didn’t get funded,” she pointed out. “And so if we open it up for one entity, we’re potentially creating a conflict for those entities that submitted the information in a timely manner.”
Funding for the Council on Aging, the supervisors agreed, could be a topic in the future.
“But for this program,” Bracker said, “I think that ship has sailed.”
City funds fully allocated
Like Santa Cruz County, the City of Nogales received millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act. But the two government entities allocated their money in widely different manners.
The county used its ARPA funds for multiple community projects. Nogales city leaders, however, chose to use the funds for two purposes: police and fire pensions, and city operations.
“A lot of people came to me and said, ‘I went to the city, because my business is in the city, I wanted to apply (for funding)’” Ruiz said during last Tuesday’s meeting. “(The city) said, ‘You have to go to the county, the county’s going to be giving out the money.’”
Last year, the city used its first installment of ARPA funds – about $3.35 million – to pay down police and fire pensions. Then, in November, the city called a last-minute special meeting to decide the fate of its final ARPA installation: another $3.35 million. During the meeting, the City Council narrowly passed a measure to allocate the remaining millions into seven city departments: police, fire, parks and recreation, planning and zoning, streets, water and sewer. However, the city has not disclosed how the money will be used within each department.
Since then, the city’s mayoral administration has changed, and with one city council meeting completed so far, the new council has not further discussed the matter.
And though he didn’t directly mention the ARPA funds during his inaugural address, new Mayor Jorge Maldonado promised more transparent spending patterns from the city.
“We have to show the community what we do for them,” he said at the time. “How we spend their money. Where we spend their money,” he said.
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