GOSHEN — Elkhart County leaders have a general plan in place for how to disperse federal COVID-19 relief money locally.

During their meeting Monday, the county commissioners approved amending the ordinance that created a fund for receiving the money and then distributing it.

The county was allotted $40 million over two years through the federal American Rescue Plan that was passed in March. The massive $1.9 trillion bill packaged a variety of spending to serve as relief from the COVID-19 pandemic, including payments that went directly to citizens, and billions for state, county and municipal governments.

The county’s ordinance for distributing the funds was created in April, which included state and federal requirements for how the money could be spent. The first half of about $20 million has been received so far, and the county expects to receive the other half in April, county attorney Craig Buche said.

While discussing the proposed ordinance amendment, Buche said the new fund is built with four categories for directing how to use the money.

One would hold about $10.5 million for responding to the public health emergency itself, or for reducing the negative effects. Another would have about $1 million set aside, primarily for the sheriff’s office, to pay for essential work done during the emergency.

The bulk of the federal money, about $28.5 million, would go into making investments in water and sewer infrastructure, as well as broadband technology. The fourth would apparently cover a provision of government services in the case of a revenue reduction.

The Elkhart County Council would have the final say on how funds are used specifically.

Elkhart County Surveyor Philip Barker spoke on the infrastructure category, noting he’s been involved with discussions on it for the past several weeks, saying the county has several unaddressed area of illicit discharges into local water systems.

Barker argued the county has an opportunity to apply these available funds while they’re available to an issue the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer program can’t fully address. He also pointed out he wanted to ensure the funds were spent responsibly.

“Just making sure any money that we receive is going to be used the way it should be,” Barker said.

Before the commissioners voted on the amendment, Commissioner Brad Rogers voiced his concerns about the federal funds and the current plan for using them.

“ The plan, although intended to be general, is too vague on how the money will be proposed to be spent, for what purpose, and who or what entity receives the funds,” Rogers said.

He argued there hasn’t been any joint meetings between the commissioners, the council and county auditor, Patty Pickens, on the plan, nor any public meetings, and additional suggestions by the council haven’t been “universally” discussed. He also alleged there is no plan for lost revenue.

Yet Rogers also pointed out he recognizes the issue Monday was for a plan and not an appropriation to spend funds, and that he can support it since it allows for adjusting the plan when needed instead of handcuffing the county.

Commissioner Suzanne Weirick disputed several of Rogers’ points. She said county staff has been regularly involved in forming the plan, and that the auditor and council members have had opportunities to speak on it. She said several council members had suggested items for the plan and the budget. Weirick also said she and Pickens have had multiple discussions on the issue of potential lost revenue.

Weirick argued in support of the plan for the funds, and for following what’s been worked out, saying federal requirements for how the county can use them shift frequently.

“With federal funds right now, the feds are constantly changing their requirements, and the sooner we can spend it — we can only spend it on the requirements we know at the time — whereas as they if they change their requirements they may have more obligations for us,” she said.

Despite Rogers’ concerns, all three commissioners voted to approve the amended ordinance with the spending plan.
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