Community stakeholders weighed in Tuesday on how La Plata County should spend almost $10.9 million in COVID-19 relief money.
A few popular suggestions included housing assistance, pay bumps for essential workers and support for behavioral health services.
“The county budget is $110 million, so this is a whole 10% of that budget. This is once-in-a-lifetime money,” said Chuck Stevens, county manager, during the meeting Tuesday. “They (county commissioners) want to use this money to invest in the community, to solve a community problem … They want to see this money spent on something that will have an impact on the community for generations to come.”
The American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion economic relief bill, allocated $65.1 billion in direct, flexible aid to every county in America with a 2026 spending deadline. With millions of dollars to spend, La Plata County is fielding ideas from stakeholder groups and community members before deciding how to use its portion.
The public is invited to attend a second meeting at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, and an online form is available for people interested in submitting project ideas.
Counties have broad flexibility in how they use the money, as long as they can demonstrate that projects support the public health response or focus on recipients who have experienced economic harm from the pandemic, according to the National Association of Counties.
Projects must meet certain criteria to be eligible. For example, they could fund the public health response, whether it applies to vaccination clinics, testing sites, local agencies or behavioral health services.
Money could address housing insecurity issues or negative economic impacts, such as harms to workers, families, small businesses and impacted industries.
The county could use the money to replace public sector revenue loss or offer premium pay for essential workers, up to $13 extra/per hour with low- and middle-income workers getting priority.
It could also invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure projects. The money must be allocated by December 2024 and projects completed by December 2026.
About 40 people representing local organizations joined the virtual stakeholder input session Tuesday afternoon with potential projects in mind.
“When you tell people you’ve got $11 million and you’re looking for ways to spend it, no surprise that we got a lot of people turning up today,” Stevens told the participants.
After hearing a brief presentation about the funding requirements, participants split into five virtual “breakout rooms” focused on specific allowable uses.
The two most well-attended groups focused on public health/housing and negative economic impact/premium pay.
One much-discussed idea was using the money to address housing needs exacerbated by the pandemic. HomesFund, a mortgage assistance nonprofit, suggested a deed-restriction program to ensure affordable housing in perpetuity.
Housing Solutions for the Southwest prioritized workforce housing and one-time assistance for people who might lose their housing. Habitat for Humanity emphasized using money to help individuals buy homes across income levels, which could help with workforce stability and homelessness reduction.
Mental health services were another focus of the group. Durango Fire Protection District said high-level, behavioral health needs have increased and money could support ground transportation for people who need to be transported out of Southwest Colorado.
Suicide prevention and trauma-informed education opportunities were also highlighted to help communities be resilient during the pandemic.
Mercy Regional Medical Center advocated for premium pay for health care workers who stayed in the area. The La Plata County Economic Development Alliance said private organizations have other avenues to garner financial support.
Upper Pine River Fire Protection District suggested using the money for premium pay for paramedics and emergency medical technicians, saying it would affect 150 people and account for about 3% of the federal funding.
“A lot of compassion fatigue out there in health care because of the second, third or fourth wave of COVID,” said Bruce Evans, chief of Upper Pine, adding that premium pay could foster support for first responders. “In our agency, we’ve seen more COVID in the last three weeks in the back of ambulances than we have in the last six months.”
La Plata County Human Services said nursing home employees should be candidates for premium pay. Local First, La Plata Family Centers Coalition and Pine River Shares said food insecurity has increased, and service workers helping with the food supply should be included.
After a sparsely attended breakout session focused on broadband, La Plata Electric Association reminded the county it is interested in partnering on broadband infrastructure projects. Region 9 Economic Development District suggested using the money to fill in infrastructure gaps, such as building cell towers.
On water/sewer infrastructure, the Durango Chamber of Commerce and Region 9 focused on identifying a project that could provide water security and water supply as a legacy project or serving underdeveloped areas, such as Grandview and La Posta Road (County Road 213), that need more infrastructure support.
The Southwestern Water Conservation District said federal money could be used for projects that are already eligible through the Environmental Protection Agency for clean water.
“There are already a number of projects listed in La Plata County that qualify,” said Laura Spann with the water conservation district.
The input will be presented to the Board of County Commissioners during a work session to help inform its funding decisions. The presentation will likely take place in late September or early October.