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A special series by Sarah Reith about the financial realities of Mendocino County governance.

Vying for the ARPA funds

A bronze seal reading, "The Department of the Treasury 1789," with pictures of a scale, stars, and a key on a coat of arms.
Wikimedia Commons
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Wikimedia Commons
U.S Department of the Treasury seal.

Mendocino County was awarded $16.8 million to alleviate the hardships of the pandemic. Everyone wants some of it, but there's been no public input on how to distribute it.

April 27, 2022 — In August of last year, Mendocino County received about eight and a half million dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, which the President signed into law to help local governments recover from the economic toll of the pandemic. The county will receive the other half of its $16.8 million award this summer.

The funding can be used to cover a broad array of costs, from paying essential workers to providing government services to investing in infrastructure. The guidelines urge local governments “to engage their constituents and communities in developing plans to use these payments,” much as the PG&E settlement funds were distributed last year.

But thus far, the public has not had the opportunity to contribute to the decision-making process about how to allocate the ARPA funds. $4.8 million has already been allocated for infrastructure, public health and direct assistance. During the fiscal review last week, the Board of Supervisors heard suggestions to use the remaining funds to provide county services and hire new staff to pre-covid levels.

But Juan Orozco, a Ukiah city councilman and co-chair of UVA, Vecinos en Accion, an advocacy group for the Latino community, thinks the money should be used for much more basic needs. “With not having a job, with not having income, you lose housing,” he pointed out. “If you’re renting, of course, and even if you’re buying a home and you don't have any income, how are you going to pay your mortgage? People don’t even have food.”

Sarah Marshall, the UVA coordinator, agrees. There’s some organizational heft behind this position. “The ARPA funds are supposed to go to support communities that have been most impacted by covid,” she declared. “So UVA hasn’t received any ARPA funds yet, but we did just receive funding from the Latino Community Foundation that is meant to be spent to advocate for the transparent distribution of ARPA funds in our community.” Marshall added that more than 100 grassroots organizations applied for the grant, which is called the Latino Power Fund, and 35 were selected, with awards totaling $1.4 million, all working towards trying to secure a fair share of the ARPA funds.

UVA Program Coordinator Maria Avalos explained what UVA plans to do with its portion, which is about $50,000. “We hope to hire someone to become an advocate,” she said, “that will be looking into where ARPA funds in the county are going to, and making sure that it is being equally dispersed and going toward the Latino community and Spanish-speaking communities.”

Julie Beardsley is President of Local SEIU 1021, which represents most of the county government’s unionized employees. She’s open to broader uses for the ARPA money, but she wants transparency, too. “I know that there’s been some talk about using the $16.8 million to backfill the deficit,” she said. “It can be invested in things like improved water systems and sewage, broadband infrastructure. It can include assistance to small businesses and households in hard-hit industries to help with economic recovery. So I’d like to see some community input on what happens with these funds, rather than having the county say, we have a deficit so we have to backfill.”

The ARPA award is just shy of the $18 million the county budgets for one month. Supervisor Ted Williams, who has spent the last few weeks in budget meetings with county department heads, says the money is vital to the county’s core mission. “I think a lot of the ARPA funds will be used to balance the budget, to make ends meet,” he said. “The alternative is we could give that money to community groups that probably have really great projects, or we could allow potholes to develop…we could stop road maintenance altogether. The ARPA funds, whether you’re looking at the $10 million or the full $16 million, if that's not used to plug the financial situation at the county, the cuts and services would be severe. I wish we could treat the ARPA funds like we did the PG&E funds, but I don’t think that’s what the public wants, when we look at the services that would be lost.”

One local organization that’s still providing pandemic-related economic relief is North Coast Opportunities, which got $1.7 million in ARPA funds to offer direct services like keeping all eight of its Head Start child care centers open during the shutdowns. It also rallied volunteers to deliver food boxes to people in quarantine and work at vaccination clinics. Molly Rosenthal, the NCO Communications Director, says part of the money is now being used to restart an essential service that’s lost a lot of providers in the last two years. “Our rural communities childcare program supported providers who have closed and are working toward reopening and connecting working families with affordable childcare,” she said, which is “particularly important as things open up and parents head back to work…those families do need access to affordable childcare.”*

The economic fallout from the pandemic continues to be severe, particularly for those who were on shaky financial footing to begin with.

To hear more about ARPA funding, you can check out a special edition of today’s 9:00 am public affairs on jukebox and on the kzyx news podcast, where we heard more from UVA and spoke with Interim CEO Darcie Antle and Laura Diamondstone, a retired epidemiologist and public health advocate.

*Molly Rosenthal of North Coast Opportunities provided more detail about the sources of the ARPA funding NCO received and what it was used for. While NCO did receive $1.7 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding, some of it came from state and federal sources to support Head Start and Rural Communities Child Care. The County of Mendocino provided $587,560 of ARPA funds that NCO used the funds to rally more than 250 volunteers for the vaccine clinics, quarantine food delivery, and other pandemic response activities; deliver fresh food boxes to households through the MendoLake Food Hub; and provide financial assistance to households economically-impacted by the pandemic.

While applications are now closed for financial assistance, The City of Ukiah’s Utility Bill Assistance Program is providing support for Ukiah residents with past-due utility bills of up to $1,000. Visit cityofukiah.com for more information.

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.