Flush with this extra cash, however, local officials are not just discussing how to address the damage wrought by the novel coronavirus. They are also thinking long-term toward much larger projects, including ones that have long been on county and city to-do lists, items including affordable housing, flood mitigation and broadband improvements.
“We can make some really once-in-a-generation investments in our community,” said Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson (D).
Unlike with the Cares Act passed last year, Rescue Plan money comes with fewer restrictions on how governments can spend it. Cities and counties can use the money to help residents and businesses directly hurt by the pandemic, to invest in long-term projects or to supplement budgets hit by the decline in tax revenue over the past year amid shutdown restrictions that curtailed economic activity.
The options are especially plentiful for Virginia’s more than 30 independent cities, which received an unusual boost from the Treasury Department: Because they carry out many of the functions normally overseen by counties, such as managing parks and sheriff’s offices, these jurisdictions are being double-funded as counties and cities.
Only three other independent U.S. cities exist outside Virginia — Baltimore, Carson City, Nev., and St. Louis — and they, too, will receive extra cash.
Tom Gates, a deputy executive director at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said there could be opportunities to address regional problems with the Rescue Plan money.
For example, localities could agree to focus on upgrading drinking water systems or to use the money to make access to public health programs more equitable, he said.
“It’s that sort of work where all of us are pulling together in the same direction to address problems that affect each of us in the region,” said Gates, whose board of directors is made up of elected officials in the region. “To some extent, the ARPA funds would allow us to do that.”
Fairfax County, Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction, expects to receive $200 million of Rescue Plan funds over the next two years, officials there said.
So far, $50 million of that has been dedicated to specific uses: to help the hard-hit hospitality industry and, over the longer term, to preserve and create more affordable housing in the county, officials said.
“We’re looking to not only meet emergency needs but to think about things that are much more sustainable, more permanent,” said Jeff C. McKay (D-At Large), the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
On Tuesday, the board approved a $25 million grant program that will direct Rescue Plan money to the county’s 110 hotels, plus restaurants, museums and tourist-related businesses that have experienced at least a 15 percent drop in business because of the pandemic.
The grants will be different for each category of businesses. Hotels with at least 10 rooms will be given priority for funding and can receive $400 per room after they apply. The other eligible businesses will be awarded money through a random lottery, with $18,000 grants going to restaurants and other food establishments, $12,000 awards to retail stores or amusement-related businesses, and $10,000 grants for museums and historical sites.
Another $25 million has been approved to preserve and create affordable housing in Fairfax, where a growing need was made more urgent when tens of thousands of people lost jobs during the pandemic.
McKay said the county also will use Rescue Plan funds for infrastructure improvements — including at county parks — and to help families who are struggling to pay rent and obtain food.
“You’re not going to see us use this money to fill a budget hole,” McKay said. “You’re going to see us use it to invest in our community and help the people who have been the most impacted through the pandemic.”
The city of Alexandria expects to receive just under $60 million in Rescue Plan funds over the next two years, said Wilson, the mayor, with half granted because of its status as a city and the other half for its special designation as a county.
The city took about 1,300 suggestions from the public on how to use the money and formulated them into nine priority ideas that were presented to the Alexandria City Council at a meeting Wednesday. The proposals will be further refined into more specific plans before a vote in July, Wilson said.
“Some are areas that were responsive to the pandemic, and some were issues that we were working on before,” he said. An effort to invest in early-childhood education, for instance, “was a priority before, but certainly it’s been highlighted by the pandemic.”
Other ideas on the table include sediment cleanup in city streams, bilingual support for residents facing eviction and a WiFi hotspot loan program in city libraries.
Wilson said he is especially excited by the possibility of using Rescue Plan money to create business improvement districts, long the subject of controversy in Alexandria’s Old Town, in part because of the commercial fees necessary to fund such entities.
“The idea is to fund the BID for a couple of years and get it off the ground,” he said. “Particularly as we’re trying to bring people back to these business districts, it’s a good tool to get them going.”
Loudoun County expects to receive $80 million over the next two years, local officials said. The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors will consider putting one-quarter of that amount toward budget gaps caused by the pandemic.
Another $20 million may be used for short-term needs, including rental assistance, food programs and boosting the county’s tourism marketing arm, which was hit hard by a loss of revenue from the hotel occupancy tax. Loudoun may also consider grants to hotels and companies that have been hard-hit or are looking to tweak business practices for a new reopening reality, according to a county staff report.
The remaining half of the county’s Rescue Plan money may go toward long-term strategic investments, including affordable housing and improved broadband access — an especially pressing issue in the county’s more rural western half.
Prince William County expects to receive $91 million over the next two years, said Ann B. Wheeler (D-At Large), the chair of that county’s board of supervisors.
The county has not yet decided how the money will be spent, Wheeler said, although the board is to begin discussing the issue at its meeting on Tuesday. A prime area of focus will be the residents and local businesses that have struggled in the past year, she said.
“We have a lot of immediate needs, in terms of people being fed and not losing their homes,” Wheeler said.
But, she said, she also hopes to use Rescue Plan money for projects that bring “structural change” across Prince William County.
For example, the county recently won approval to create its own public health department, allowing it to leave the state’s health district system after problems with coronavirus testing and vaccine access frustrated many residents.
Wheeler said she can see Rescue Plan money going toward ensuring that the new health department provides high-quality services.
“We want to be putting excellent systems in place for our public health department right from the start,” she said.
Arlington County expects to receive $46 million through the Rescue Plan program for state and local fiscal recovery funds. The county has incorporated some of this money into its budget for fiscal 2022, including for restoring county services and public health efforts such as coronavirus testing, contact tracing and vaccination campaigns.
Beyond those efforts, county officials say they are still working to review federal guidelines and put spending recommendations before the county board this fall.