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Councilors discuss projects for federal COVID relief funds

During a Thursday morning workshop of the Roswell City Council's Finance Committee, Councilor Margaret Kennard, left, performs some calculations while Councilor Jeanine Best takes a closer look at a list of projects proposed for the $11.7 million the city will receive from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. (Juno Ogle Photo)

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Two Roswell City Councilors often at odds with each other were in agreement Thursday that some items on the list of projects proposed for the city’s $11.7 million from the American Rescue Plan went beyond the interpretation of what the money can be used for.

City councilors agreed with the city manager, however, that the most important projects are those that will directly assist local businesses and residents.

The Roswell City Council’s Finance Committee conducted a workshop Thursday morning to discuss a proposed list of projects to fund with the city’s allocation from the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill approved by Congress and signed by President Biden in March.

The city has received the first half of the funding, $5.8 million, and expects the second half in June or July, City Manager Joe Neeb said.

The workshop was for discussion of the projects and no action was taken. Neeb said most likely projects would be introduced to the Finance Committee one at a time or in small groups. The city has until 2024 to spend the money.

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Expenditures from the relief measure are limited to those that can be tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, Neeb said, such as for public health, negative economic impacts and education assistance.

Neeb presented a list of 15 projects compiled by city staff that included proposed funding amounts from the staff as well as proposed funding from Councilor Jacob Roebuck.

Seven of the projects were categorized as capital investments or changes to public facilities, allowed under the public health category. Four projects were categorized as aid to tourism, travel or hospitality, allowed as negative economic impact.

Councilor Jeanine Best, who is not a member of the Finance Committee but attended the meeting, said she had a problem using the funds for some tourism-related expenses such as the development of the Railroad District, for which staff recommended $500,000, and another $500,000 that included expanding the Visitor Center to include a fountain.

“I get it, tourism is our big deal. I don’t have a problem with that,” she said. “COVID was related to our people in town. And what I see a lot here, adding a fountain over here, that’s an expense that’s going to continue time after time after time. Why put it out there if we have to continue to upkeep it?” she said.

Councilor Juan Oropesa said while he and Best are often on opposite sides of issues, he agreed with her on the fountain and Visitors Center.

“I don’t think COVID was the reason why we haven’t expanded the Visitors Center. I’m also having a hard time. It seems like what we’re having to do is stretch the interpretation of how to use that money to be able to bring new stuff to the community. I don’t understand what the fountain has to do with COVID,” he said. He likened some of the items to a “wish list.”

Best questioned including those tourism expenses when no expenses related to the Roswell Adult Center or Emergency Management were included on the list.

“Let’s move on to the Adult Center that’s been closed and our citizens are suffering because of that, and that building is suffering because if you’re not in it, it’s falling apart,” Best said.

Neeb said it could be a challenge to tie Adult Center repairs directly to COVID-19 and added he had planned to fund needed work from other areas of the budget. After some discussion, however, he said it could be done and said staff would go back over the list to include the Adult Center.

“Since the time of building this list we’ve evolved, and so we’re in a different place. So I think the adult center does fit COVID relief. They were the ones that were the most susceptible, they were the ones that are most impacted as well, too,” he said.

Mayor Dennis Kintigh said he would prefer that Adult Center improvements should be considered in a bigger view. That would include how the Adult Center programming works with other facilities in the community, such as the Joy Center, the Roswell Museum and Art Center, Roswell Public Library and the Roswell Recreation and Aquatic Center.

“I would argue that this is the time to step back and do the higher-level, strategic evaluation on where we go with this,” he said.

The most important projects on the list, Neeb said, with agreement from the councilors, were those that would include grants for businesses and provide a way to pay what residents owed on city utilities.

One project would set aside $2 million that would include paying six months of debt service on the Roswell Convention Center.

“Due to the impact of the lost revenue from lodgers tax, we ended up canceling a (management) contract. We closed for awhile. We’re trying to reopen,” he said.

The same $2 million would also provide grants to local hotels, which they could use to provide lower room rates as an incentive to customers or for capital improvements.

Another $400,000 recommended by staff would expand the Roswell Opportunity for Advancement Revolving Loan (ROAR) program, a low-interest loan authorized by the city council in May 2020 and administered by the Roswell-Chaves County Economic Development Corp.

Neeb said the funds could be used to meet codes for fire suppression or accessibility.

“That’s going to be very important for downtown buildings because all of our building stock downtown is old and it doesn’t meet the standard,” Neeb said.

City staff also recommended $1 million to help residents catch up on water, sewer and trash bills with the city. The city paused shut-offs for nonpayment after the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

“We went from essentially carrying $400,000 worth of uncollected utility billing up to about $800,000,” Neeb said.

Among other projects on the list are $800,000 for the RMAC for tourism-related improvements and infrastructure for a controlled entrance; $1.5 million for an improved entryway at the Spring River Zoo; $600,000 for LED signs; $300,000 to purchase smaller transit vehicles; $1 million for a Roswell Air Center hanger expansion; $580,000 for a columbarium and communal shelter at the South Park Cemetery for COVID-safe services; and $300,000 for a homeless work training program.

As he did with the Adult Center, Kintigh advised the committee that deciding how the federal funding is spent needs to be approached deliberately. Other federal bills are in the works that could fund some of the projects or other city needs, he said.

“This is something unlike anything else. Are we getting money for that elsewhere? It remains to be seen. I guess my final takeaway is, let’s proceed cautiously, carefully, deliberately, because we will not see these dollars again,” he said.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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