County Commissioners discuss spending options for federal stimulus money

GENESEE COUNTY — Following economic trials posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Genesee County government will be getting much-needed relief to aid county departments and recoup lost revenue.

At its March 24 meeting, the Genesee County Board of Commissioners discussed options for spending federal stimulus money over the next few years. Genesee County government will get around $79 million from the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill that was passed by Congress last month and should be receiving its first round of stimulus money within the next 60 days.

Altogether, the county will have about three and a half years to spend its allotment, encompassing the next four to five fiscal periods until the end of 2024.

Josh Freeman, Genesee County Board and Capitol Projects Coordinator, requested for commissioners to consider designating the funds for five county government areas: the Genesee County Health Department, the county’s Administration of Justice; tax relief; capital projects; and replacement of lost revenue from county departments like the parks and the court system.

“We’re not asking you to approve any specific projects today, but this will just guide us we move over the next couple of fiscal years on how we would spend these dollars and guide our departments when they’re bringing proposals before the board for consideration,” Freeman said.

Freeman said that stimulus funds would help the health department to continue with its response to the COVID-19 pandemic and public health costs. He said that the federal dollars would also help to solve backlog issues with the county courts, which have been stymied by the pandemic.

Under the stimulus bill’s restrictions, capital projects would be limited to water, sewer and broadband projects.

Commissioner Bryant Nolden (D-Flint) then made a motion to approve funding consideration for the suggested government areas. The board passed the motion by a 5-4 vote.

Commissioner Shaun Shumaker (R-Fenton Township), who voted against the motion, said that the county board should complete more research on how stimulus funds can be spent before it begins drawing up a framework for spending. He also said that the board needs to have major oversight on how the money will be allotted.

“We’re allowing a very broad brush with this,” he said. “We’ve had issues before with staff taking liberties with emergency relief dollars and how they’re spent. I agree with most of these areas, (but) there’s a couple I have some issue with, and I think there’s a few that need to be added.”

Commissioner Domonique Clemons (D-Flint), who voted in favor of the motion, said that the vote merely streamlines the spending process by outlining high priority categories for the county.

“We’re not voting on how to spend the money,” he said. “We’re just telling our department heads that if doesn’t fall into these buckets, don’t come to us for a request.”

Board Chairman Mark Young (D-Grand Blanc), who also supported the measure, pointed out that the stimulus money is subject to stiff regulations and can’t be used to stabilize some critical needs in the county, like funding for retiree healthcare or OPEB benefits. He said that the county will continue discussions with the state treasury department to ensure that all spending is compliant with the federal stimulus bill.

“This is a rare opportunity for us to utilize these funds,” he said. “We’ll just need to make sure that we have good oversight of it.”

In addition to bolstering its departments, the county can use some of its stimulus funding to help local businesses that have struggled through the pandemic and support essential workers with grants and/or premium pay.