Wednesday, May 22, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
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Graham city council still unsettled on how to spend nearly $5M in Covid-19 relief funds from ARPA


Graham city council members reached a tentative consensus Friday night on how they want to start spending some of the $4.98 million that the city is to receive from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

In a rare Friday evening meeting (that lasted about two hours beginning at 5:00 p.m.) the council continued discussion from a special meeting that began at 12:00 noon on Monday, July 18. But when the council had not made a decision after two hours, the meeting was recessed until 5:00 on Friday – the date and time being chosen because of conflicts for individual council members at most other suggested alternatives (both that week and the following).

During their two-hour Friday meeting, there was also largely a consensus on some specific ways in which they did not want to spend it.

The council also heard that a roofing problem at the Civic Center building may also necessitate some additional city funding that had not been budgeted. Heavy rainfall last week revealed some damage. The building’s flat roof was viewed as the culprit, although the initial view was that it would be too expensive to change the style of the roof.

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City manager Megan Garner was asked to assemble some estimates for how much the repairs will cost, which she will report back at a future council meeting.


Infrastructure ideas
The largest proportion of the funding tentatively agreed on, estimated at $3.5 million, would go toward funding a major water line project to and from the wastewater treatment plant.
The city currently has a 10-inch water line that needs to be replaced with a larger, 16-inch line. The overall cost is estimated to be $6.1 million, but the city is hoping that additional funding to complete the funding can be obtained from one or more grants.

Another water line, along West Elm Street, also needs replacement, at an estimated cost of $1.5 million, but that project was not given a priority.

In fact, several years ago, a city-funded study focusing on downtown said that major infrastructure work (primarily water and sewer lines) needed to be done by the city around Court Square. The discussion among city council member at the time had been that the work could be done in conjunction with the expected state repaving of NC 87, which would include the traffic circle around the Historic Court House.

The concept, repeated last week, was that once a trench is opened, it would be more economical to deal with the underground issues, rather than having to do so separately at another time.

In 2019, when the city paid a consultant to develop a Downtown Area Plan, the idea was that water, sewer, and stormwater improvements would be made in conjunction with the road repaving around Court Square.

However, earlier last week, city council members largely dismissed that option because the city now does not have the time to complete the infrastructure improvements before DOT is scheduled to start the repaving (beginning from Bethany Church on South Main Street) sometime next month.


Other spending ideas
During Friday’s city council discussion, mayor Jennifer Talley raised a number of projects that she suggested the city could consider funding.

One was for a project she has long favored, wi-fi service in the downtown area. The most recent cost estimate is $60,000 to install a new system and then $900 per month.

City council member Bonnie Whitaker
Graham mayor Jennifer Talley

Talley also raised the issue of whether any additional funding might be necessary for employee health insurance benefits.

That and another idea she raised, of providing even more funding for city employee health insurance benefits, brought a comment from Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr., present to cover the meeting.

“The idea of giving additional funds on behalf of city employees whose health benefits are already far, far more generous than what most private citizens in Graham can afford, seems to me to be just ridiculous.

“In my view, the council should look for [spending that would provide] the greatest benefit to the greatest number of businesses and residents.” – Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr. during Friday special meeting

“The idea of giving additional funds on behalf of city employees whose health benefits are already far, far more generous than what most private citizens in Graham can afford, seems to me to be just ridiculous.

“In my view, the council should look for [spending that would provide] the greatest benefit to the greatest number of businesses and residents,” Boney said, listing infrastructure projects as a leading contender for serving all citizens.

“The idea of something over here for employees, something over here for downtown, is missing the mark of what the priorities should be,” Boney contended. “It would be better for you to cover the maximum impact rather than little specialty groups.”

Talley said she was trying to think of projects that had not been funded in the past and wanting to find things that fit with the ARPA funding’s “intended use” for health purposes.
However, Boney stressed that the original limitations and definitions on how federal ARPA funds could be spent have been revised subsequently to allow greater flexibility for how local governments can spend their allocations.

“The limitations for ARPA funding are largely not [any more].” The original description, with strict limitations from several years ago, have been changed, Boney said. “A lot of the definitions now leave an awfully wide definition of what is allowable.”

Boney urged that the council should use the money “for the widest application for Graham residents.”

When the mayor asked for any specific ideas, Boney mentioned additional street paving and sidewalks as possibilities for funding that would “benefit the city as a whole,” noting that citizens are often dissatisfied with the small amounts designated for such purposes during the annual budget process and the city itself sometimes acknowledges that it is behind where it should be in such projects.

City manager Megan Garner amplified Boney’s point about the evolving federal requirements and definitions – originally “a lot of restrictions” and definitions of allowable ARPA spending, Garner described.

The most recent, final guidance generally allows cities to use their first $10 million as like a “standard deduction,” of sorts, so that the first $10 million can be used, generally, for anything that the town or city had originally used its funding for, she added. “It really opens up” what it can be used for, Garner said.

The two major “no-no’s” in the federal guidance, Garner explained, is that no funds may be used for pensions or for debt service.

After Boney’s comments, councilman Bobby Chin said he agreed that the city council should seek to get the “maximum benefit for the best investment,” a view also voiced by council member Bonnie Whitaker, who had earlier questioned the overall value of the wi-fi service for downtown.

Chin also mentioned an old water line on Albright Avenue that might be considered.


Fire trucks running up and down the roads
Councilman Ricky Hall raised the possibility of funding an extra ambulance and some extra personnel for the Rescue Squad, a separate private, non-profit organization, so that city fire trucks are not having to “run up and down the roads” for every EMS call.

Garner cautioned about putting temporary money into an expense that’s going to be recurring (i.e., through multiple fiscal years).

It was also noted that it might take at least three people, or even four, to cover a 24-hour day.

Garner noted that based on information from service reports, the Graham Fire Department was cancelled or not needed on 14.25 percent of the calls it answered.


Police: uniforms, equipment, and cars
Much of the Monday discussion had been about how much additional funding was necessary for six new Graham police officers, who are to be funded by a grant, as well as what is needed to equip two additional school resource officers (SROs) to serve in Graham’s two elementary school, North and South Graham.

Uniforms and equipment would cost about $62,101.44 for eight officers’ uniforms and equipment, an item that emerged as a consensus among the city council members.
There was general agreement on provide at least three new cars (for some of the six new officers, who, it was noted, will be assigned to patrol).

At $68,010.93 each for new cars, the council agreed to set aside $204,032.79 for three cars, with some discussion about adding a fourth car at the end of the process if there was enough money left over.

Mayor Talley at one point asked whether the city might get a better value from buying used cars from other law enforcement departments – or at auction – that rotate their vehicles on a more frequent basis than Graham does.

Other consensus items included $18,000 for a “fuel master system” for the IT department (which is running on an old DOS-based system), and a $55,000 internet upgrade at the Civic Center.


Boat ramps and docks
Talley also asked whether the boat ramp at the Graham-Mebane Lake was dangerous and should be replaced.

Garner was tasked to find a price tag for the idea before the council finalizes its list of ARPA-funded projects.


Security cameras at parks
Garner was also asked to find out a price on getting security cameras for the entrances and exits to the city’s main parks. Some discussion focused on whether the city should also get gates for the parks and set a closing time.

It was noted that one shelter had been burned and a trailer stolen (twice) from one park.
A gate could be a “significant deterrent” to people who “are up to no good,” said council member Whitaker.

Also listed as a possible expense was to fix the “sinking” of the city’s Sesquicentennial Park on the northwest corner across from the Historic Court House.

Garner is also to obtain an estimate of the cost to fix the issue. Discussion also focused on whether the small corner park could be arranged to have more seating and possibly be used as a rental venue, much like the city does for various picnic shelters at the larger parks in the city.

Talley raised the question of whether county government might also contribute to the project since the park was originally established in 1999 as a park to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the county’s founding in 1849.

Among other miscellaneous potential spending items mentioned in the course of the two-hour meeting: gateway signs into the city, especially along the interstate (with Mebane’s along I-85/40 being cited as an example that Graham would like to emulate); funding for an update of the city’s master plan; and an update of the code of ordinances.

By Garner’s running tally of preliminary decisions, the council generally agreed on about $3.8 million in projects, leaving another $1.147 million thus far undesignated.

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