Connecting state and local government leaders
In Clear Creek County, Colorado, federal relief dollars could go toward addressing long-term challenges in areas like housing and economic development.
The $1.8 million destined for Clear Creek County, Colorado under the $350 billion state and local aid program the Treasury Department is now running may seem unremarkable compared to the size of the total pool of money, or even the payments other localities will receive.
In fact, there are roughly 2,500 counties across the U.S. that will collect larger allotments, Treasury figures show—like Los Angeles County, in line to receive nearly $2 billion, and Harris County, Texas, home to Houston, slated to get $915 million. The program providing the funds was created by the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law known as the American Rescue Plan Act.
Clear Creek County’s award appears modest against those huge sums. But with a population of about 9,700, the money is significant as the county transitions out of the pandemic, and tries to tackle longer-term challenges it faces. “$1.8 million is a lot of money for our county,” Alyssa Dinberg, Clear Creek’s Covid-19 recovery coordinator told Route Fifty.
A look at the county offers a glimpse at how one of the thousands of local governments receiving federal aid is preparing to make decisions about what to do with the funding.
Mountains, Mining and Tourism
Clear Creek County is located in the Rocky Mountains, about 20 miles west of downtown Denver, along Interstate 70, the state’s main east-west highway. The county sprawls 396 square miles, more than one-third the size of the land area in Rhode Island.
Total county revenues over the past five years have been around $30 million annually—the $1.8 million is equal to about 6% of that amount. The largest local taxpayer, accounting for about 36% of the county’s 2019 property tax base, is a large underground mining operation, known as the Henderson Mine. The mine produces molybdenum, which is used to make metal alloys.
In recent years, the mine has seen layoffs. And the county’s most recent financial report notes falling tax revenues from it and says mine management has indicated the site will continue production at reduced levels through 2039. (The mine's owner did not respond to a request for comment asking about its plans for the site.)
Tourism is also important to the local economy. There are destinations in the county itself, like the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, and people coming from the Denver metro area pass through en route to ski or take part in other outdoor activities further out in the mountains.
Like many communities across the country, maintaining an adequate supply of affordable and quality housing is a leading local concern. There’s also talk about how to diversify and strengthen the economy as the likely mine closure looms in future years.
Planning for ARPA Spending
The county is still in the early stages of deciding how to use its American Rescue Plan funds.
Dinberg, while emphasizing that she doesn’t have final say over how to spend the money, said she suspects it will go to programs that are geared towards addressing problems the county faces in areas like housing and economic development, which in some ways were put under an even harsher spotlight by the pandemic.
That’s opposed to using the money to fill immediate budget gaps, or to provide emergency assistance to residents and businesses. That’s what the county did, Dinberg explained, with an earlier round of federal aid provided under the law known as the CARES Act.
“CARES is more of that emergency money, like how can we stop the hemorrhaging right now?” she said. “ARPA is more of, sustaining, enhancing and improving our communities long term.”
Something else significant about the new funding, she noted, is the leeway that governments have in how they use it. There are restrictions made clear in the law and in Treasury Department guidance released in May. But, in general, states and localities have wide latitude to deploy their funds. They also have years until they’ll hit a 2024 spending deadline.
“It’s less about how much it is and more about the flexibility,” Dinberg said. “We have never been given money like this.”
Dinberg spoke to Route Fifty on June 10. At that time, the county was in the process of completing forms required to access the funds. “They don’t just magically appear,” she said. “It's through the federal government and it’s a fairly cumbersome process to even register.”
Beyond that, the county was in the early stages of establishing a framework for how it would make decisions about spending the money. An option under consideration involved two panels—a committee of different county department staff and an advisory team consisting of elected officials and other community leaders from organizations like the local school district.
CARES Money Left Over
As of early June, Clear Creek County still had about $238,000 of CARES Act funding left from about $1.6 million funneled there through the state. Dinberg said the county didn’t see budget revenues dramatically collapse during the pandemic, but it did end up using CARES dollars to cover unplanned costs.
For instance, the county put $61,000, supplemented by about $125,000 in foundation funding, toward grants to residents to help individuals struggling to pay expenses like rent and utility bills.
It also used CARES funding for about $878,000 of business support grants and $233,000 to forgive loans that businesses received from a local economic development corporation.
“One of our goals with recovery was to ensure that there wasn’t any contracting of our economy,” Dinberg said. “We just do not have the flexibility to really lose many businesses.” Most businesses did survive the downturn and new ones have even opened, according to Dinberg. So far this summer, she said, anecdotal reports indicate that commerce is strong.
Looking ahead, another consideration is ensuring that whatever Clear Creek does with its aid meshes with how municipalities within the county decide to use federal money they’ll receive through the state. It’s about “making sure that what we’re doing compliments the work that they’re doing,” Dinberg said, and “not competing or having priorities that are going in different directions.”
Earlier this month, the county was accepted into a state “recovery roadmaps” program that aims to provide technical assistance and grants for regional teams of rural communities “to drive economic relief, recovery, diversification and long-term resilience.”
The program is another reminder of how much federal money is now out there for communities to tap into. Dinberg said that, in general, her county will likely try to secure federal and state funding that’s available for projects before dipping into its own aid allocation. “There’s so many pots,” she added. “Not just the ones that have been given to the municipalities and counties.”
Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.