Monday, November 28, 2022

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

How should Graham spend its windfall of federal dollars?

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Graham city council members have met for four hours last week, trying to decide how they should designate projects to be paid with about $4.98 million in special ARPA (that’s the federal American Rescue Plan Act) money that Congress passed in 2021.

Here’s a novel idea: why not ask the citizens of Graham what they think should be the priorities for spending this unexpected windfall in extra money from Washington?

Now, we hasten to add, however, that we do not recall any other local jurisdiction pausing to ask its taxpayers and residents how they might suggest spending similar amounts of largesse.

These funds have poured into local governments since the federal government – under the justification of the COVID-19 pandemic – authorized the huge outlay of spending, i.e., an unprecedented $1.9 trillion, at least $350 billion of which is designated for state and local governments (both municipal and county).

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While the original, general terminology was that the ARPA money was for “public health and economic recovery,” the purposes that are viewed as fitting those definitions have been inexorably expanded over the past year to provide that just about anything can be defined as a legitimate ARPA expense for local governments.

Graham mayor Jennifer Talley, at times during the two meetings last week, seemed to want to restrict the city’s focus to “health,” “outdoors,” or other ostensibly Covid-related purposes.

Her concepts of what constituted “health” and “outdoors” had some pretty improbable functions.

The most unusual, in our judgment, was her renewed advocacy for installing wi-fi in the downtown area.

We’ve never understood her enthusiasm for the concept – nor that advocated by mayor pro tem Ricky Hall or some other members of previous city councils in recent years.

The price tag is intimidating to start, i.e., $60,000, but even more exorbitant to continue, at $900 per month in perpetuity. And for what?

Commendations to council member Bonnie Whitaker who had the temerity to speak the obvious: most people have wi-fi capability on their cell phones these days, making the item “something we shouldn’t be taking on right now,” Whitaker said.  “It’s more of a luxury, not something that is badly needed,” Whitaker pointed out; indeed, it is a “frivolous” expense in light of the many other needs facing the city. Amen.

Whitaker urged that funding should be reserved for “things we really, really need” such as infrastructure and things for the police (i.e., uniforms, equipment, and even cars). Amen, again.

Indeed, the need for taxpayers across Graham to provide tens of thousands of dollars so that a few people who don’t have wi-fi access on their phones or computers can have taxpayers finance their wi-fi access in downtown Graham has always seemed to us unnecessary, to put it mildly.

Talley also tried to claim that wi-fi would help “educational groups” who might want to meet in the downtown area, but Whitaker again belled the cat: exactly where are they going to meet, she questioned, inasmuch as there aren’t any areas large enough for large groups (educational or otherwise) to gather?

Others chimed in on the skepticism.  Councilman Joey Parsons wondered aloud what percentage of people visiting downtown wouldn’t have access to wi-fi.

“It is a solution looking for a problem,” was the summary of councilman Bobby Chin.  We couldn’t agree more.

Talley’s next misplaced effort was to wonder aloud whether something could or should be done to “improve” the city’s health insurance plan for its employees.

While stating proudly that the city’s new insurance plans are an improvement over the past, Talley still raised the possibility that even more might be done for municipal employees via the ARPA funds.

Rarely have we seen Talley so misguided in her priorities.

Graham city employees – like most other local municipal and county employees – have some of the most generous health benefits available anywhere!

And certainly far, far more generous than that available for the typical Graham taxpayer.

We always find it somewhat amusing that the significant annual increases in health insurance premiums paid by local governments (or, more accurately, by their taxpayers) have long since been disregarded – both by the employees and their city councils – in calculating the real value of government employee benefits.

Somehow, everyone still expects so-called automatic cost-of-living increases in salary – never including a calculation of higher-than-average premium increases in any comparison of their actual benefits.

It seems to us fairly obvious that the windfall of federal money should be focused on the greatest good for the greatest proportion of Graham’s citizenry.

We’re not very fond of some of the “special interest” categories that the city council seemed focused on.

We’re not really sure that all taxpayers, for instance, should be called on to provide boat ramps at the Graham-Mebane Lake.  Seems to us the city might consider higher fees there to obtain adequate funding from the few people who actually have, and use, a boat on the lake. (Also, because the lake is jointly governed with Mebane, some consultation with that city, and whether it wants to chip in part of the costs, would be in order.)

Instead, it seems to us that some of the broad infrastructure improvements would be one area of legitimate expenditure.

Another broad application would be improvements in the amount of repaving that could be done on city streets, and the expansion (and repair) of sidewalks throughout the city.

Among the most obvious deficits in regard to the latter is the lack of consistent sidewalks along the west side of South Main Street, for instance, in the several blocks south of the courthouse – most ironically, including the failure to have a complete sidewalk in front of city-owned property, the Captain White House, home of the arts council, right next to city hall.

All in all, we’re sure Graham’s taxpayers might have some valuable ideas about how these federal funds – which are, of course, their tax dollars from another pocket – should be spent.

But we’re quite confident they would share our view that they should be focused on serving the citizens of Graham as a whole rather than merely certain portions or with regard to special categories.

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