HELENA — The city of Helena is set to receive about $16 million through the federal American Relief Plan Act, but they have outlined more than $50 million of projects that they could conceivably use the funding for. That means city leaders will have to decide what their priorities are.
“We’re trying to be strategic,” said city manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk. “These dollars, since they’re only one-time, we’re really trying to make sure that we are using them in the most effective way.”
Harlow-Schalk has laid out initial recommendations for ARPA spending, ahead of a Thursday work session where the Helena City Commission will discuss possible uses for the money.
Much of the ARPA money has been allocated specifically to water and sewer projects. Helena has been awarded $2 million for water system improvements through a competitive grant, and the city is receiving another $5.5 million through a guaranteed state allocation.
Harlow-Schalk says they’ve identified more than $30 million in current needs, just to maintain the existing system.
“We’re trying to be realistic in what we could do, and yet really move forward the needs that we have in our water and sewer system,” she said.
One of the major projects they could pursue would be $2.5 million to install new filter systems at the Tenmile Water Treatment Plant.
In addition to the funds specifically for water and sewer projects, Helena is receiving $8.4 million in “local recovery funds” through ARPA. The law sets out four purposes that money can be used for:
- Investing in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure
- Responding to COVID-19 and its economic impacts
- Continuing government services that rely on revenues lost during the pandemic
- Providing premium pay for some eligible workers
Under Harlow-Schalk’s recommendations, the city could direct $1.825 million of the recovery funds to pay for more water and sewer improvements. That would leave another $6.575 million for other areas.
One subject Harlow-Schalk is looking closely at is homelessness. She says the city has been seeing more cases of people sleeping outside or in RVs.
The city could consider using some of the money to help local nonprofits like Good Samaritan Ministries and the United Way of the Lewis and Clark Area put together a temporary emergency shelter.
“We really don’t have that emergency homelessness response sufficiently covered,” said Harlow-Schalk.
Another option would be to try pilot programs aimed at responding to mental and behavioral health cases. Harlow-Schalk said each person experiencing homelessness is different, and having someone to work on their specific situations would be valuable.
“If we can capture and work with someone from the beginning of their homeless derailment, what has gotten them into their homeless situation, then we can move them into more of a predictable cycle,” she said.
One question the city commission will have to decide is whether to allocate all $8.4 million of the recovery funds now. The city is receiving half this year and half next year, and they could choose to delay decisions on the second half to let the newly elected city commissioners who will be in office by then have a say.