The members of Alamance County’s governing board were unusually tight-lipped on Wednesday as dozens of nonprofit representatives and others shared their suggestions for the county’s multimillion-dollar cache of federal pandemic relief funds.
The county’s board of commissioners ultimately heard from nearly three dozen individuals during a public forum that evening, which allowed people outside of Alamance County’s government to weigh in on the $32.9 million that the county has been allotted under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
The commissioners have previously had much to say about this federal largesse, which has already dwindled to less than $30.2 million, even with the inclusion of some $3.8 million that the county has banked to offset its own pandemic-related expenses. But they managed to restrain themselves during Wednesday’s forum, as their chairman, John Paisley, Jr., had optimistically predicted as he kicked off the 3-hour event.
“At this point, we’re here to listen,” Paisley said as he and his fellow commissioners convened at Alamance County’s Historic Court House. “All five commissioners have agreed tonight to listen to your concerns. But we as commissioners are not going to respond, and we are not going to ask questions of presenters tonight.”
Paisley and his colleagues ultimately heard 29 pitches during the forum – most of which came from local nonprofit organizations that have either lost revenue during the coronavirus pandemic or struggled to meet the soaring demand for their services. The
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commissioners also received some generic suggestions from residents to fund things like education, mental healthcare, broadband Internet access, and crisis assistance for people who have found it hard to make ends meet since the arrival of COVID-19.
Wednesday’s public forum followed the presentation of funding requests from the county’s own departments and agencies, which asked the commissioners for a combined sum of nearly $48.2 million when they made their pleas earlier this month. The fact that these internal requests already exceed the available funds didn’t prevent some of the forum’s participants from making their own high-dollar claims on the county’s allotment.
ALAMANCE COMMUNITY COLLEGE
One of the more substantial requests came from the president of Alamance Community College Algie Gatewood, who asked the commissioners to spare some of the county’s pandemic relief funds for a public safety training center that the college plans to set up in the town of Green Level.
Although most of the center’s $10.4 million budget is covered by a bond package that area voters approved in 2018, Gatewood urged the commissioners to set aside $500,000 in federal pandemic relief for water and sewer lines to serve the facility. The college’s president then upped the ante again – this time in response to pandemic-era increases in the cost of construction.
“The problem is that COVID-19 has really exacerbated the cost of this project,” he told the commissioners. “$500,000 will get us water and sewer in place. What it does not help us with is the escalation that we’ve experienced…If we are unable to deliver the whole package, that would mean we would not be able to provide the training to the extent we would like.”
NEW CHARTER SCHOOL
The commissioners also received a rather sizeable request from Peter Morcombe, a charter school developer who previously bankrolled the construction of the River Mill Academy in Graham and Clover Garden in Altamahaw. Morcombe urged the commissioners to contribute $1 million to $2 million toward his latest endeavor, which he has dubbed the Unity Global Academy. He added that he intends to spend at least $10 million on the new school even without any buy in from Alamance County.
“If you don’t give us a penny,” he said, “you’ll get one $10 million school. But we may fail…Suppose you give us $1 million. Then, we open this school [at a cost of $15 million], and we will succeed.”
In addition to Morcombe and Gatewood, a number of the forum’s other presenters also sought specific sums from the commissioners to pay for particular projects and programs. These proposals included:
- ALAMANCE DIGITAL ALLIANCE: An outlay of $250,000 over three years on a “digital inclusion” plan that seeks to expand the reach of information technology in Alamance County. A brainchild of the Alamance Digital Alliance, a consortium of local governments and nonprofits that includes Alamance County, this plan calls for the extension of broadband infrastructure into poor and rural areas where high-speed Internet isn’t always available. The plan also
has a “digital literacy” component that Chandler Vaughn, an Elon University fellow embedded with the city of Burlington, explained to the commissioners on Wednesday. “In today’s world where vaccines and health appointments are being made online, many seniors must depend on a family Alamance member or caregiver to do this for them,” she elaborated. “We propose allocating funds to offer basic digital literacy efforts in Alamance County. This money would be used to offer free programs to seniors, to small businesses and others.”
- WOMEN’S RESOURCE CENTER: An allocation of $150,000 over three years to the Women’s Resource Center, which provides a wide range of services to women and children who’ve experienced domestic abuse and other hardships. The center’s director, Susan Watson, told the commissioners that the requested funds will allow her and her colleagues “to expand our reach to those most at risk in the community.” “We have to understand that COVID was a traumatic event affecting the day-to-day lives and health of human beings, and our recovery efforts and available funds need to be direct toward human services,” she said. “Our program is labor intensive, and your help is needed for us to expand our program offerings for those most marginalized in the community…Providing wraparound services to women and their families is a worthy use for the funds over which you have discretion.”
- ALAMANCE ARTS: An allocation of $120,000 over three years to support Alamance Arts. Leanna Giles, a member of this organization’s board, told the commissioners that this sum will help pay the artists and musicians whose work
is showcased by Alamance Arts. “Simply put, the arts mean business for our community,” Giles insisted. “[But] there is no question that COVID has had an impact on artisans’ ability to earn wages…Artists’ employment is recovering but slower than the nation’s economy.”
- ALAMANCE COUNTY HISTORICAL MUSEUM: A request for $82,000 from Bill Vincent with Alamance County Historical Museum. Vincent said that the requested funds would offset the revenue which the museum
has lost due to the demise of in-person fundraisers and a drop off in the so-called occupancy tax that hotels and motels pay to support travel and tourism. “We have had to delay maintenance at the site,” he told the commissioners. “We have had one staff member go on a part-time basis, and we have had to reduce all our advertising budget…If we could replenish the lost $82,000 with ARP funds, it could speed the recovery of the travel and tourism sector by making our site more desirable to visitors…we could create a positive feedback loop where we are increasing our visitation thereby increasing our tax dollars.”
- ALLIED CHURCHES: A request for $80,000 over two years from Jai Baker with Allied Churches of Alamance County. Baker said that these funds would support his organization’s mission of “housing the homeless and feeding the hungry.”
He added that his group’s services are more in demand now than ever before due to the resumption of eviction proceedings since the governor lifted a statewide moratorium that he placed on evictions earlier in the pandemic. “Where do we place those individuals? How do we house them?” he inquired rhetorically. “That is what we do that is our job…We’re [also] talking about taking our unfortunate, those who are underserved, and putting them back in the workforce at a very rapid rate.”
- SUSTAINABLE ALAMANCE: A request for $60,000 from Phil Bowers of Sustainable Alamance, which helps reacclimate convicted felons who’ve been released from prison. Bowers told the commissioners that the proposed outlay would help fund the renovation of a building that his organization has leased along North Church Street to serve as a “family and community economic stability” center. Bowers added that this center will offer resources like childcare, mental health services, and life-skill classes to create a more supportive environment for former felons.
- ALAMANCE COMMUNITY SERVICES AGENCY: A request for $50,000 from Annette Orbert of the Alamance Community Services Agency. Orbert told the commissioners that these funds will supplement the $365,272 that
her agency received in an earlier federal disbursement to help area residents weather the coronavirus pandemic. “That funding was intended to last for two years,” she added. “I guess you realize it didn’t make it…We estimate that an additional $50,000 is need to continue to assist with food, utilities, rent, etc.”
- AMOS OF ALAMANCE: A request for $50,000 from Rodney Kendrick of AMOS of Alamance. Kendrick said that his organization is “in the business of shaping and changing lives” through housing initiatives, a food pantry, self-sufficiency training, and partnerships with other nonprofits. “We know that all it takes to change the world is a little support,” he added. “All the dollars that are given to AMOS of Alamance will go directly into the community.”
- YOUNG MUSICIANS OF ALAMANCE: A request for $25,000 from Alexandra Arpajian with Young Musicians of Alamance. Arpajian told the county’s governing board that this outlay would offset the pandemic’s financial toll on her organization, which provides free music lessons to children who attend Title I schools. “Most of our funding this past year has been used to stay alive,” she added, “and now we are looking to thrive.”
The commissioners also received other requests to fund particular programs and projects that didn’t have specific price tags attached. Among those who presented these open-ended proposals were:
- BENEVOLENCE FARM: Kristen Powers of Benevolence Farm, which provides housing, employment, and “wraparound services” to women who have been released from prison. Powers said that her organization is especially well placed to address some of the negative economic impacts of the pandemic. “The challenge however is that many people are returning home without money or savings, often with no IDs or jobs, no vehicle, no housing,” she said. “At Benevolence Farm, we have been thinking about how we address housing in particular.” Powers went on to share her organization’s plan to establish a “tiny house community” to shelter 12 women.
- UNITED WAY: Sally Gordon of the local United Way. Gordon asked the commissioners to provide revenue for a “housing specialist” to coordinate various affordable housing initiatives in Alamance County. Gordon added that this specialist could work either for the United Way or for Alamance County. “This position isn’t to build lots of housing or building more apartment complexes,” she added. “It is just to increase the coordination of the agencies already doing the work.”
- SOCIAL SERVICES DEPARTMENT: Heidi Norwick, the president of the local United Way, who appeared at the forum in her other capacity as chairman of the county’s social services board.
Norwick thanked the commissioners for the bonuses and pay raises that they’ve previously approved to address turnover at the county’s social services department. She nevertheless requested additional funds to staunch the defections from the department. “We’re still seeing a lot of need and still needing a lot of assistance,” she said. “For instance, in October, we had two hires at DSS and 11 departures. As of November 8, there are 57 vacancies at the department of social services. That is a 23 percent vacancy rate.”
- ALAMANCE COMMUNITY FOUNDATION: Gavin Stevens of the Alamance Community Foundation asked for funds to bankroll small business grants that would piggyback on the success of a revolving loan program that the county launched with earlier allocations of federal pandemic relief. Stevens said that the loans, which are administered by the Self-Help Credit Union, have proven more successful than she and her colleagues ever imagined. “So far, we’ve loaned just over $325,000 to 18 different small businesses in Alamance County,” she added. “When we established this program, we thought that certainly we would have 25 to 50 percent of the loans that weren’t repaid…So far, we have not had to write off a single loan. Everyone is paying back in full and on time, so these are funds that are going to continue to go back into the county.”
- MEALS ON WHEELS: Amanda Bartolomeo with Meals on Wheels briefed the commissioners on some of the challenges she and her colleagues have faced since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bartolomeo observed that her organization has seen a 61 percent increase in clients since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. “During COVID-19, our agency continued to serve meals during a time of uncertainty and ensured that the meals were delivered safely,” she added. “There is a desperate need to hire additional staff due to the increase in demand for our services.” In order to accommodate additional staff members, Bartolomeo said that Meals on Wheels is trying to raise $850,000 to expand its headquarters from 1,100 to 5,000 square feet. She also noted a need for more revenue to cover cost increases, such as a recent price hike from the organization’s caterer, which she predicted will require another $120,000 a year.
- ALCOVETS: James Fletcher of ALCOVETS promoted a proposed veterans retreat called Chestnut Ridge that his organization hopes to develop in the southern part of the county.
“There are no diversional facilities in Alamance County for veterans,” Fletcher told the commissioners. “We’re trying to raise a little over $2 million [for] a diversional center where our veterans can go to decompress.”
- CITY GATE DREAM CENTER: Lauren Edwards of the City Gate Dream Center, which provides resources for low-income students, informed the commissioners about a paid internship program that the center has in the works. Edwards said that, according to her calculations, a nest egg of $48,000 would provide internships for 10 students who are forced to work in order to support their families. “These are students that have big dreams but are not able to focus on school or extracurricular activities,” she added. “When you put that kind of investment in young people, man the way that can maximize and multiply the potential in the people who are reached.”
Other participants in Wednesday’s forum offered general advice to the commissioners or pitched projects that they themselves wouldn’t necessarily be implementing.
During the forum, Mark Gordon of Cone Health put in a plug for a diversion center that the local sheriff’s office intends to set up to provide appropriate treatment for mentally ill individuals who are arrested for non-violent offenses.
Reagan Gural, the president and CEO of the Alamance Chamber of Commerce, recommended outlays on a variety of community needs.
“Specific areas that the chamber sees opportunity for funding are broadband access throughout Alamance County, enhancing workforce development, and financial support for small businesses,” Gural went on to note. “As a voice of the business community, the Alamance Chamber knows that advocating and investing in these areas will move the needle in Alamance County.”
Meanwhile, Sherri Henderson of the Salvation Army, urged the commissioners to look more favorably on proposals that involve multiple agencies and organizations.
“A lot of these people are talking about partnerships,” she added. “I’m hoping that you’re hearing this tonight. There’s a lot of organizations here that work together.”
Pastor Larry Covington of Burlington’s Ebenezer Church called on the commissioners to fund broadband infrastructure in “marginalized communities.”
Teresa Wiley, one of Covington’s parishioners, proposed a cadre of 10 “parish nurses” to tend to the congregations of various area churches. Wiley also urged the county’s governing board to get a better sounding of the community’s needs before they allocate the county’s federal pandemic relief.
“Hearing from the community is very different than hearing from any of the agencies here tonight,” she added. “What would members of the community say that weren’t here tonight because of barriers?…If we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do this right.”
Donna Vanhook, an unsuccessful candidate for Burlington’s mayor, made “a broad appeal” for “equitable education, health, employment, quality affordable housing and infrastructure for underdeveloped and disadvantaged black communities.”
Henry Vines, a veteran of several failed bids for the board of commissioners, encouraged the board’s current members to use their federal pandemic cache to shore up existing projects and programs.
“This is an opportunity to take some of this money and catch up on things that we need to do,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of things that this money can be put toward that are already here.”
Melissa Blum, a local kindergarten teacher, advocated for early childhood education and kindergarten readiness.
“Unfortunately, only 53 percent of [local] kindergartners met the definition of readiness in 2019,” she told the commissioners. “Due to COVID, problems during entry to kindergarten are magnified this year.”
Lisa Wolff, a newly appointed parks and recreation board member, called for funds to support recreational activities for children.
Children were also at the center of another pitch that Becca Bishopric-Patterson and Arlinda Ellison, a spokeswoman for the local health department, made on behalf of a community advisory group called Alamance Youth Connected:
“Our goal is to support the optimal health of our youth and their families,” Bishopric-Patterson told the commissioners. “We believe that ARPA funds should be allocated funding should be allocated to address the needs of families in our county…We believe that funding should be utilized over the course of the next three years with a focus on youth because the youth are the future of this county.”
Meanwhile, Chadea Pullian, the founder of a local nonprofit called Becoming Grace, and Tori Mitchell, the owner of “Nail Things,” a cosmetology school in Burlington, asked the commissioners to aid small startups and nonprofit organizations like their own.
“A nonprofit is hard especially when you come from the low-income side of town,” Pullian said. “Throughout COVID, we have been able to sustain these businesses without funds…We [don’t include] everybody if we only cater to the west side…We’re here to ask for a piece of the pie.”
See earlier coverage on county manager’s report to commissioners on how government departments would like to spend Covid-relief funds: https://alamancenews.com/county-staff-ideas-for-spending-federal-money-already-more-than-available-and-that-doesnt-even-include-publics-ideas-yet/