ATLANTA — Christmas is coming early this year for local governments, businesses and nonprofits in Georgia struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Starting Aug. 1, the state will be accepting applications for $4.8 billion in federal funding earmarked for Georgia in the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus bill Congress passed in March. The state will get the money in two installments of $2.4 billion each, one this year and one in 2022.
Three committees of state lawmakers and high-level leaders of executive branch agencies will begin meeting in September to sift through the requests and allocate the money in mid-October.
It promises to be a daunting task, said Georgia House Appropriations Committee Chairman Terry England, who will sit on all three committees.
“We may have literally thousands of applications to look at,” said England, R-Auburn.
The committees will have some help. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget (OPB) will review each funding application to make sure it complies with guidelines set by the U.S. Treasury Department, England said.
“The guidelines are out there,” he said. “OPB has a special website set up for (applicants) to look at.”
It’s no coincidence that two of the three committees are dedicated specifically to considering funding applications for broadband and water and sewer projects. The third committee will review proposals aimed at addressing the pandemic’s economic impact.
“Broadband and water and sewer are the only infrastructure (projects) specifically authorized in the federal legislation without strings attached,” said Clint Mueller, legislative director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia (ACCG).
A significant caveat applicants must follow is to request funding only for one-time projects. It was important enough that Gov. Brian Kemp included it in his prepared statement appointing the members of the three committees.
In the case of an infrastructure project, that means construction costs but not operational expenses. Local governments asking for funds to cover employee pay raises should make them one-time bonuses, not ongoing salary increases.
“There’s a lot of concern that people spend it right, that they don’t incorporate it in their budgets and when the money goes away, they can’t keep it going,” Mueller said.
The American Rescue Plan (ARP) money for broadband and water and sewer projects comes in addition to significant funding already available from other sources.
Kemp allocated $30 million in state funds this year to expand broadband connectivity in rural Georgia. Also, the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund has set aside $326.5 million for Georgia over the next 10 years.
On the private sector side, local electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) across the state are partnering with telecom providers to bring high-speed internet to rural communities for the first time.
“Funding is one of the major barriers to broadband expansion, so the additional resources come at a great time as momentum builds for providing adequate internet service to every part of the state,” said Jason Bragg, vice president of government relations for Georgia EMC. “EMCs are appreciative of Governor Kemp’s willingness to allocate ARP funds toward the critical issue of broadband access.”
State investment in water and sewer projects also has risen substantially. The Georgia Environmental Finance Authority approved $475 million in loans to cities, counties and local water and sewer authorities during fiscal 2021, which ended June 30, more than double the $192.3 million in loans the agency floated during the previous fiscal year.
Mueller said he expects fast-growing counties will account for most of the funding requests for water and sewer projects.
Broadband projects that seek to combine taxpayer funding with private partners including EMCs are most likely to win approval for ARP money, he said.
Mueller said smaller counties could be at a disadvantage in the process because of the red tape involved in submitting applications for funding.
“Smaller counties don’t have the staff resources to keep up with all of that,” he said.
England said one way around that problem would be for smaller cities, counties and nonprofit organizations to consolidate their applications under a larger umbrella.
“Some cities and counties don’t have grant managers,” he said. “ACCG or GMA (the Georgia Municipal Association), with their resources, could pool those together and make an application on their behalf. That’s what I hope we’ll see on some of these.”
State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the longest serving member of the Georgia House, said he’s been contacted by a lot of nonprofits interested in applying for ARP money to help fund their activities.
“You cannot leave out social justice and community-based projects,” said Smyre, who will serve on the committee to review applications aimed at the pandemic’s economic impact. “I think you’ll see those bubble up.”
Smyre said he expects a competitive process when the committees sit down to review the applications.
“Everybody was affected by the pandemic,” he said. “Their resources were hit. This is an opportunity to fund some of these programs.”