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Confusion swirls around stimulus money

Saturday, April 3, 2021
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Three weeks after President Joe Biden signed the much-touted American Rescue Plan, local governments are still waiting for word on how the stimulus package will be implemented and exactly how much money they’re going to get.

“I think the intent is good in that they’re trying to get this money out as soon as possible, but I think they may have gotten the cart before the horse,” Parish Administrator Doug Postel said Thursday.

Estimates released by state and national organizations in March showed the parish and its municipalities stood to get almost $20 million in the COVID-19 relief money. The bulk of that was just over $9 million for the Lincoln Parish Police Jury and slightly more than $8 million for the city of Ruston.

Those numbers may — or may not — still be accurate.

“We don’t know,” Ruston city Treasurer Julie Speir said.

She said the city’s been told the U.S. Treasury isn’t going to release any funds until authorities figure out how the stimulus plan is supposed to work.

But one thing is for sure: The first half of whatever local governments do end up getting has to be here by May 10.

That’s because the rescue plan sets a firm 60-day deadline after passage of the bill for the first half of the money to arrive. Congress approved the plan on March 11; Biden signed it the same day.

So far, the city and the police jury are getting most of their information about the status of the plan from the Louisiana Municipal Association, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties.

But those groups don’t have a clear picture, either.

“Most people are sort of on the edge of their seats (waiting for the rules),” LMA’s Executive Counsel Karen White said.

No entity can receive an allocation that equals more than 75 % of its last budget, but exactly what parts of the budget are considered remain unclear, Spier said.

There isn’t even a clear definition of what federal officials consider to be “revenue.”

On March 18, the NACo sent a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen asking for guidance about the stimulus funds.

NACo said it surveyed its members and received “numerous questions.”

Among them: What is considered as “revenue” for the purposes of the rescue plan? Most taxing entities receive general tax revenue, other user fees, state or federal grants, and maybe intergovernmental transfers.

“An overwhelming number of respondents indicated that the most helpful information the White House and U.S. Treasury could provide to counties to help us effectively spend this new aid is guidance on the allowable use of funds,” NACo Executive Director and CEO Matthew D. Chase wrote.

Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker has said he anticipates some of the city’s money will go to shore up reserves, some for the planned new fire station on West California Avenue, and some for the long-talked about new animal control facility.

The police jury is more cautious about listing specifics.

“We are having internal conversations in house that we think will fall within the broad parameters (of the bill),” Postel said. “Hopefully we’ll get to do some things with these funds we’ve been wanting to do.”

Every entity that receives stimulus money has to have it spent by Dec. 31, 2024. Any unused money goes back to the U.S. Treasury.

The $1.9 trillion recovery plan is aimed at providing relief from financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The package includes over $65 billion in flexible aid directly to every county in the country. Louisiana will receive $5.185 billion, which includes state capital project funding, state government funding, parish funding, and municipal funding.

The parish and the municipal funding will flow through the state, but the state is barred from doing anything with the money except sending it directly to the intended entity.