Tim Theaker

Mansfield Mayor Tim Theaker (Richland Source file photo)

MANSFIELD -- There may be future joint cooperation between the City of Mansfield and Richland County leaders on how to use their $44.4 million in combined American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

But Mansfield Mayor Tim Theaker, citing ongoing emergency water/sewer repairs, said he will present plans to City Council next week detailing how his administration wants to spend almost all of the $10.5 million the city received this year.

Theaker said he wants about $3 million of the initial ARPA allocation to go to water/sewer infrastructure, largely to cover a collapsed 19th century storm sewer from West Third Street to Touby's Run. That work will cost about $750,000 this year in the first phase and another $1 million during a second phase in 2022.

Under the latest COVID-19 relief plan approved by Congress earlier this year, the city will receive about $21 million and the county $23.4 million, getting half of the allocations this year and half next year.

Local governments have four years to make spending decisions and are only operating now on "interim, final rules" established by the U.S. Treasury Department on how the money can be spent.

Theaker's plan was announced during a meeting with county commissioners.

According to Theaker's plan, the administration plans to spend nearly all $106,889 of the first year's allocation. In addition to the $3 million for water/sewer infrastructure, his plan calls for:

-- $5 million for COVID-19 revenue replacement, which would presumably replenish the city's general fund, a percentage allowed under the ARPA guidance. The mayor said usage for that money had not yet been decided.

-- $850,000 for "scan documents."

-- $642,636 for police radio replacement.

-- $325,000 for fire station COVID upgrades.

-- $60,000 to Catholic Charities for rental assistance.

-- $550,000 for business development, likely in the form of grants to businesses impacted by the pandemic.

"We need some of this money to help us with the budget (now)," Theaker said, "with the expenses we have projected."

City Council is expected to vote Tuesday night on a $1.5 million engineering/design contract for a proposed dry dam in North Lake Park, a structure that would ultimately remove more than 100 acres of the city's north end from the flood plain.

Some council members have expressed concerns about the contract, which would be paid for out of the city's sewer fund.

When asked if the ARPA spending plan would ease the minds of council members to approve the issue Tuesday, Theaker said, "Anything is possible."

The mayor's plan requires City Council approval and a vote is likely in October. Earlier this year, several council members requested council and public involvement in the decision-making process.

At-large member Stephanie Zader was one of those making the request in April, saying she hoped there would be several council meetings and many public meetings to discuss how the money should be invested. She said council should work with the city administration to facilitate such meetings.

The session Thursday with county commissioners was designed for a presentation on ARPA possibilities by Jodie Perry, president/CEO of Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development; Brady Groves, president/CEO of the Richland County Foundation; and Alison Goebel, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Council.

Since that session, Goebel and her staff have examined existing 12 development plans from entities around the city and county and offered suggestions for ARPA discussions in areas such as economic development, improving affordable housing, improved transportation, small-business stabilization, infrastructure, etc.

In late March, Richland Source published an editorial that urged government officials to "slow way down" when it came to American Rescue Plan funding. It asked for deep, thoughtful conversations about how these funds might be invested in the communities they serve.

The editorial also urged government officials to think outside themselves and seek expert advice and counsel.

We decided to offer some help in that department.

The Richland County Foundation, the Richland Area Chamber & Economic Development, and Richland Source hosted a webinar on May 25th to chat with Alison Goebel from the Greater Ohio Policy Center about the best use of ARP funds.

Tune in to listen to a short presentation from the GOPC, along with questions and answers from our audience. To read the full transcription of questions in the chat, click here: https://www.crowdcast.io/e/americanrescueplan

"We were struck by the commitment to collaboration between the county and municipalities," said Aaron Clapper, GOPC project manager. Speaking specifically about the City of Mansfield, Clapper said, "We were struck by how many plans focus on quality of life and community development concerns."

County commissioners have announced no ARPA spending plans yet, pointing out funds do not have to be obligated until the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

Commissioners Tony Vero and Cliff Mears both expressed a desire for a joint county-city steering committee to help develop priorities and plans. Theaker did also, though his planned spending may limit future joint opportunities.

Perry told commissioners and the mayor that the chamber and RCF had asked GOPC to review existing plans and present recommendations. She said the goal of the review was not to present specific spending plans, but begin the process of creating a roadmap.

"We understand you have immediate needs," Perry said.

Grove said, "We wanted to find that common thread through all these plans and present some ideas. It's not a list of what to do. It's a starting point for a conversation that may help us make plans for the future.

"Our goal is not to tell you exactly how to spend the money. Instead, the goal is to provide information, which we hope will help you as you start making decisions in the future," he said.

Going forward, commissioners and the mayor agreed to form a joint steering committee of 10 to 15 people, representing various sectors of the community, to consider ARPA uses.

Vero, who pointed to a recent request from county judges for a fourth courtroom, said, "We want to keep the vast majority of this money open for the steering committee."

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"

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