Communities still deciding how to spend government COVID relief windfall

GENESEE COUNTY — Local communities are deciding what to do with a windfall in COVID-19 relief funds which are trickling down from the federal government.

Genesee County itself will be receiving just under $79 million from the stimulus. The Genesee County Board of Commissioners recently discussed how it will use the money.

The county’s priorities for spending the money includes funding for the Health Department’s coronavirus response; working to catch-up on a backlog of cases in local and state courts; capital improvement projects; and the replacement of approximately $6 million in revenue lost during the pandemic.

Aside from the county, many local communities throughout the area are also receiving relief funds.

The city of Flint is expected to receive $99.3 million, while Flint Community Schools are set to receive $114 million.

In the Genesee County View coverage area, Grand Blanc Township will receive $3.6 million, Flint Township $3 million, Davison Township $1.9 million and Flushing Township, $1 million; while the City of Burton will receive $2.8 million.

At a local level, municipalities and townships can use local funds for these purposes:

• Responding to the public health emergency of COVID-19 or the negative economic impacts of the pandemic, including assistance to households, small businesses and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries like tourism, travel and hospitality.

• Supporting essential workers by providing premium pay to eligible workers or by providing grants to eligible employers that have eligible workers who perform essential work. Premium pay is up to $13/hour on top of regular wages; with a cap of $25,000 for each individual eligible worker.

• Supplementing revenue loss from the COVID-19 public health emergency.

• Investing in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure.

Stimulus funds cannot be used by municipalities or townships to offset tax cuts or delay the imposition of any tax or tax increase, or to use a deposit to a pension fund.

Burton, the second largest city in Genesee County, is scheduled to receive $2.8 million, but officials there are holding off on making any decisions about how to spend the money until they know when and how much they will receive, and what the stipulations will be for spending it.

The Burton City Council held a workshop Monday night where it was supposed to talk about plans for the stimulus money but agreed to hold off until more is known about guidelines for spending it.

Most councilmembers would like to use the money on streets but talk coming from Washington D.C. is that roads and streets may not be something the money can be used for. Some infrastructure needs, like water and sewer, may be included, however.

“Sewer, water and broadband, those are infrastructure needs, and what do any of those have to do with COVID?” said Burton Council President Steve Heffner. “I think we can use it on streets. It says not on pensions, not on millages we decreased after March 2020, but it said use on infrastructure so I think there’s a possibility we can use it on streets.”

Burton officials will hold off dedicating the funds until more details come down from the government. However, they urge residents not to get their hopes up about using the money on streets until more is known about the guidelines.

“We don’t want to mislead our residents,” said Vice President Greg Fenner. “Our hands are tied until we get those guidelines. If roads can be on that list, it is a priority. But until we get the guidelines, we don’t want to get anybody’s hope up.”

Flint Township will also be receiving one of the largest stimulus relief amounts in the county at around $3 million.

As of press time, Supervisor Karyn Miller could not be reached for comment on how the township plans to spend the money.

In Flushing Township, Supervisor Fred Thorsby said that his community is slated to receive $1.01 million in a couple of payments. Thorsby said that while the township doesn’t have a lot of information about spending options at this point, he plans to discuss the issue at next month’s Board of Trustees meeting.

“One idea we have is improving the broadband infrastructure in Flushing Township, possibly using some of this money to leverage other funding to build a wireless system,” he said.

Meanwhile, the City of Flushing is getting $778,059 dollars in stimulus money. Mayor Joseph Karlichek said that the money is expected to be earmarked for capital improvements which were outlined in the city’s recent workshop sessions and subsequent discussions between the city council, administration and department heads late last year.

“We are fortunate to have the opportunity to immediately address the many years of critical infrastructure issues this city council has been faced with,” Karlichek said.

Davison Township Supervisor Jim Slezak said he’s heard the numbers, to the tune of about $1.9 million for the township, but he said he hasn’t seen anything concrete from the federal government.

“We’d like the money, we can use the money,” he said. “Basically, we don’t have a full definition of what we can spend it on. We have to use it where they deem it’s necessary to use.”

Slezak said while the township could really use the money to fix it’s roads, he said the board can’t make any decisions until they see what amount they end up with and are told how they can spend it.

In Richfield Township, Supervisor Joe Madore said he’s seen a spreadsheet showing the township has been allocated some funds, but he hasn’t received official word on when the money will be available.

“There is also a lot of question as to what the funding can and cannot be used for.” Said Madore. “I have heard that we cannot use it for roads because there might be a separate plan in the future to address roads and other infrastructure.”

He said at this point the township board is taking a wait and see approach to see what, if any money shows up, and if it does what the township’s options are for using it.

Swartz Creek City Manager Adam Zettel said the city is on the list and expecting to receive some funding, but officials don’t want to “count that chicken before it hatches.”

“In theory, we’re slated to get about a half million dollars or so,” Zettel said. “But there’s nothing in writing that it’s happening or when. We certainly won’t be budgeting it until it’s affirmed and, even then … my recommendation to council will be to play it conservatively.”

City officials could opt to tuck the money away for a rainy day while they keep a close watch on the economy, he said.

“If we keep it in fund balance for a year or two and end up not need it, great; we can spend it on streets or something like that,” Zettel said.

No one wants to commit the funds to a project then end up facing economic hardships.

“There is no shortage of things to invest in, between the parks and the streets, but with so much uncertainty forthcoming, it’s best to hold onto at least a large portion, if we get it,” Zettel said.

In neighboring Mundy Township, officials are taking a similarly conservative approach to the potential windfall.

“The state Department of Treasury has informed local units of government that they’re waiting on some clarifications, and to basically hold our horses,” said township Manager Chad Young. “We don’t want to be in a situation where we get too ambitious or excited. We want to be prudent in our decision making and make sure it’s something that has a meaningful impact on community.”

The township board of trustees has had no discussion of potential projects, Young said.

“Initial projections show that we are (in line to receive funds) but there’s the caveat, we’ve all been warned, that they have no idea what that final number would look like right now,” he said.

Grand Blanc City Manager Wendy Jean-Buhrer said the city council expects to receive some funding, potentially as much as $770,000.

“This is exciting news,” Jean-Buhrer. “The Michigan Municipal League and National League of Cities have been asking for this for years, even before (COVID), to fill the gaps in revenue sharing.”

The MML is advising community leaders to tread cautiously because the total amounts are yet to be finalized.

“Some of the reasoning is that villages weren’t included in the (total) amount,” Jean-Buhrer said. “So now, villages may need to be ptu back in, which may reduce our allocation.”

Though they’ve had no formal discussions on possible projects, the city council does have a strategic plan that calls for some significant water and street infrastructure programs in the coming years.

“But there has been talk and we do have some projects the city has wanted to do for quite a while, and this will be the perfect opportunity for u to do that,” Jean-Buhrer said. “But, until we know for sure, we won’t proceed. We’re coming up on our budget time and looking at what we’ll be doing. We have some big water infrastructure projects on hold, and we’d like to move forward on those. We’re looking at our priorities and strategic plan, and water infrastructure and local streets were two of our highest priorities, so I believe that’s where council will be focused.”

Ben Gagnon, Lania Rocha and Gary Gould contributed to this report.