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Carlton County Board considers how to spend $7 million in ARPA funds

Two of the main items brought up by the board were improving roads and broadband access throughout the county. The county has about $7 million in ARPA funding to spend.

FILE: Carlton County Transportation
The Carlton County Transportation Building.
Izabel Johnson / 2021 file / Pine Journal
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CARLTON — Some leniency in the final ruling on how to use American Rescue Plan Act funds will give the Carlton County Board of Commissioners more options on how to spend the money, officials said.

The board started discussions on what its priorities should be and how to move forward with the funds during its committee of the whole meeting Tuesday, Feb. 1.

Commissioners voted to extend the county building mask policy and have the policy be reviewed in April.

The board will have $6.97 million to spend on projects.

Mary Finnegan, the county's economic development director, explained to the board that as the county got below a $10 million threshold they will be allowed to spend the funds on more governmental services with less restrictions.

To date the county has already spent $1.3 million on a waterline assessment, back filling the transportation department budget for 2022 and hiring an additional temporary attorney for the county.

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Finnegan explained the leniency the county has means officials do not have to designate the funds to anything in particular as they had to with Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding.

Two of the main items brought up by the board were improving roads and broadband access throughout the county.

Commissioner Gary Peterson said his constituents bring up the "terrible" roads in the county with him regularly. The costs to fix roads are high, so Peterson said the county board should try to help local municipalities with transportation costs.

When it comes to broadband, Finnegan said it would be best to wait to see how the federal infrastructure funds are used before making a decision.

"We just don't want to use our money for broadband until we are sure of what other buckets of money are out there," she said. "Our money could be used as a match to federal dollars."

As local townships have received some funding as well, the board wants to look into partnering with them on projects that would be beneficial to both.

Some of the restrictions that still apply to how the county spends its funds include legal settlements and one of interest to the county: making debt payments.

Commissioner Dick Brenner asked if the board could use the funds to pay for the interest or debt on the proposed justice center, but that would not be allowed.

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Brenner also wanted to know if the county could use the funds to offset its levy and lower it to somewhere around 3%.

While the funds could not directly be used to offset the levy, if the board chose to spend the funds on something that would otherwise be covered by the levy, the money could indirectly be used to lower the levy, said Finnegan.

Since the county has been successful by proceeding with caution, Peterson said, officials should continue to do some when it comes to ARPA funds.

"But already, because we proceeded with caution we didn't make some mistakes ... I'm going to get a shirt made up 'proceed with caution' and wear it (to every meeting)," he joked.

Peterson thinks all options available to the board should be on the table as they move forward with discussions.

The board has time until Dec. 31, 2024, to allocate the funds, and the final payments are due on Dec. 31, 2026.

In other county business, commissioners discussed possible improvements to the audio equipment in the current room for board meetings, to make it more accessible to those who have difficulty hearing.

Peter Gould, information technology director, laid out a handful of options for the commissioners ranging from doing nothing to improving everything in the room.

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The price of the possible upgrades ranged from $4,000 to $80,000 depending on how much the commissioners wanted to change.

The board came to a consensus that they wanted to start small with adding microphones and looking into better speakers for those who sit in the back of the room.

Another aspect the commissioners discussed was where board meetings would be permanently held.

Commissioner Thomas Proulx suggested that when the courtroom is vacated to move to the new justice center, the board could use that space.

"That would also bring traffic back into Carlton," he said.

Related Topics: CARLTON COUNTYCARLTON COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERSGOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Dylan covers the local governments of Cloquet and Carlton County, as well as the Esko and Wrenshall school boards for the Cloquet Pine Journal.
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