Richland County commissioners

Richland County commissioners Cliff Mears (left), Tony Vero (center) and Darrell Banks meet on Tuesday morning.

MANSFIELD -- Richland County's coffers swelled by $11,766,372 on Monday when the first half of the federal American Rescue Plan dollars arrived.

Finding the best ways to invest the money, and an equal amount coming in 2022, remains a topic for discussion, county commissioners agreed on Tuesday morning.

Guidelines for using the federal funds, issued by the U.S. Treasury Dept., will not make it easy, commissioners said.

"The way the guidelines are written, they're so selective and so narrow, we don't have a lot of places where we can use the money. So we're gonna research and look for ways to benefit everybody in the county. But it wasn't designed for that," Commissioner Darrell Banks said.

The guidelines are more relaxed when the funds are being spent in "qualified census tracts," according to Commissioner Tony Vero, who said there are two such tracts within the City of Mansfield, largely on the north end of the city.

There are no other qualified census tracts in Richland County.

Such geographic locations are identified by the federal government based on the percentage of low- and moderate-income residents. The tracts must have 50 percent of households with incomes below 60 percent of the area's median gross income or have a poverty rate of 25 percent or more.

The city has about 46,000 of the county's 121,500 residents.

"(The guidelines) identify areas with people in need of assistance, so I understand it," Vero said. "But where we struggle as county government is a majority of our residents live outside Mansfield municipal limits," he said.

"The way the guidelines are presently written, it's easier for us to spend the money in the City of Mansfield. The city is already getting $22 million," said Vero, adding the 151-page "final interim rules" from the Treasury Dept. have additional restrictions within each approved usage.  

Experts have advised local leaders to work together and be "strategic" in finding the best ways to invest the "generational funds," an idea commissioners endorsed on Tuesday.

Vero said a steering committee is being set up by Jodie Perry, president and CEO of the chamber, and Brady Groves, president of the Richland County Foundation.

Those two, along with Source Media President Jay Allred, arranged an online community conversation on May 25 with leaders and residents from Richland, Ashland, Knox and Crawford counties with Alison Goebel, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center.

View the online conversation here.

About $85 million in ARP funds will flow into governments in the four counties in the next two years. Governments must appropriate the funds by the end of 2024 and expend them by the end of 2026.

The money is being sent to counties, municipalities and villages. It's not known if townships in Ohio will receive funds, as they did with CARES Act money in 2020.

Madison Township, for example, is the second-largest governmental entity in Richland County, behind only the City of Mansfield.

"By (strategic), I mean make sure investments work together toward community goals rather than being piecemeal or scattershot," Goebel said during the hour-long conversation.

"Achieving this means understanding community goals and developing and implementing a plan with specific projects that work together to meet the goals," Goebel said.

One possibility, Vero said, could be working with the City of Mansfield to improve the affordable housing stock on the north side of the city.

"We think there is good opportunity there. That's absolutely going to be a part of the discussion, which we would obviously need to have with the City of Mansfield, with what they're going to do with their dollars," Vero said.

Another possibility would be a renewed grant program to benefit local small business owners, specifically targeted to assist those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, including tourism, bars/restaurants and entertainment.

Vero said the guidelines allow for the county to replace revenue lost due to the pandemic. But even that has restrictions, Vero said.

In the interim, the county can earn interest income on the ARP funds deposited Monday, Commissioner Cliff Mears said, adding that earned interest can be spent in whatever manner the county sees fit.

No final decisions are close to being made, according to commissioners.

"I think we are going to listen to what these organizations are advising. But rest assured that the three commissioners will be the ones who make the decisions on where (ARP funds) are going," Banks said.

"And unless you look deep into the guidelines that we've been given ... it's very difficult right now to see where we can spend the money. We're not going to rush into anything," Banks said.

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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?"