Trillions in federal spending translates into millions for Eagle County programs
County officials hope to nab federal grants to fund long-term projects
Congress has approved trillions of dollars for federal COVID-19 and infrastructure aid funding, which means billions are bound for Colorado state agencies and millions will be dispersed to Eagle County.
That leaves the Eagle County commissioners with the not-so-burdensome duty of figuring out how to spend that money — a discussion they recently launched.
At present, the county knows it will receive $10.7 million in COVID-19 aid from the American Rescue Plan Act. Approximately half that money is already in the county’s bank account. But that sizable sum represents only one potential funding windfall.
Last month, Congress passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill which includes approximately $550 billion in new spending for transportation, water, broadband, energy and other projects. The challenge now, as noted by Eagle County’s Director of Finance Jill Klosterman, is to figure out how to access the federal funding and get that money directed to local projects.
“We don’t have a lot of information about the bipartisan infrastructure bill, but it is heavily, heavily weighted to transportation projects,” she noted.
But it just so happens that between its ECO Transit, road and bridge and airport departments, the county has a lot of transportation needs. Klosterman said the challenge is to find the areas where federal funding and county priorities mesh. For example, she noted the county has $500,000 earmarked for electric vehicle charging stations. The infrastructure bill has $7.58 billion earmarked for such programs.
“Wouldn’t it be beneficial if we could leverage that $500,000 with that $7.58 billion?” Klosterman said. “That is the kind of thing we have been asking.”
Acronyms abound in discussion of new federal funding programs. The recent discussion between the county commissioners and various department leaders centered on three primary sources — the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and finally, the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (CSLFRF).
“The point of it is there is a lot of federal money out there,” Klosterman said.
But, she noted, the procedures governing how to apply for the financial aid are still being written. Right now the county needs to examine and define its own priorities so it is well positioned to apply for federal funding, Klosterman said. Ultimately the county’s goal is to seek funding that will help its long-term projects come to fruition rather than applying for dollars simply because they are available.
“We are trying to balance the wait-and-see … with wanting to move forward on our strategic priorities and maybe taking some action that is bigger than what we have taken on in the past,” she said.
Wait and see
County departments whose programs could benefit from a cash infusion are closely watching as the federal program rules unfurl. ECO Transit Director Tanya Allen noted the initial round of funding was directed to hard-hit agencies and the county’s system didn’t fit that definition.
“We are quite fortunate that we have sales tax money that has been quite healthy,” she noted.
But, Allen noted, as additional funding becomes available, the county could nab money for projects that, up to this point, have been on a wish list. That includes items ranging from additional electric buses and fleet vehicles to possibly working on a valleywide rail transport system.
“There is an amazing array of things there,” Allen said.
That sentiment carried through to the county’s housing department where director Kim Bell Williams noted that federal funding will be available for revolving loan and gap financing projects. Additionally, the county will be able to partner with local nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity to provide grant dollars.
“There is a lot of interest to support the type of work we are doing,” she said.
Expansion of broadband services is a $65 billion portion of the infrastructure bill, noted Eagle County Director of Innovation and Technology Scott Lingle. He said the county could tap into that source to serve areas that currently have no access to broadband services. Eric Lovgreen, the county’s wildfire mitigation coordinator, noted there is $500 million in federal dollars earmarked for wildfire defense mitigation, an effort that has become a top tier local priority in the wake of recent devastating wildfire seasons in Colorado.
County Environmental Manager John Gitchell noted that funding for winterization programs will triple as part of the new federal push. “We are looking forward to going with that program and utilizing the funding that is coming in,” he said.
And then there are the ideas that are still in their earliest stages that could benefit from new federal dollars. Tori Franks, director of the county’s sustainable communities program, noted the West Eagle proposal is an example of a project that may net federal dollars.
“It seems like funding is directed at things we want to do. It’s not like we have to create something different,” noted Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney.
Here and now
While county staff members grapple with the federally funded possibilities, they must also hone in on actual needs for the 2022 budget.
“We have $10.7 million in Eagle County funding. We know we are going to get that money. The other funds we have to go out and seek,” Klosterman said. “But we can use the money that is in our budget and make things bigger. That is our hope.”
She noted the federal dollars do have parameters, but the county can work within them. For example, Klosterman said the $10.7 million can be leveraged with county dollars and applied to planned projects including:
- Wildfire mitigation
- Gypsum Creek Bridge on Cottonwood Pass
- Early childhood supplements
- Electric vehicle charging stations
- Housing programs
- Beneficial electrification of Eagle County Homes funding
Klosterman noted that identified uses for COVID-19 funds, which must support services provided to populations, households, or geographic areas disproportionately impacted by the pandemic include:
- Hazard pay for early childhood educators
- BEECH expansion
- Affordable housing development
- Mountain Family Health Center capital campaign
- Habitat for Humanity partnerships
- Storm water system resiliency
- Behavioral health
What do residents want?
A caveat included in COVID-19 federal funding urges local governments to engage constituents and communities to develop plans that address identified needs. The county has launched that effort with a community survey that asks three basic questions: What do you love most about living in our community? What is your greatest concern for the future of our community? What is your greatest hope for the future of our community?
Colton Berck, county community engagement specialist, said initial survey results reflect consistent county values — a sense of place and community, concerns about housing and the cost of living and high value for the natural environment and worries about the effect of growth. Klosterman noted the initial funding priorities reflect those results.
“We were happy that a lot of work we are doing is what the community is talking about,” she said.
As the county approaches final approval of its 2022 budget, allocation of the federal dollars will move from discussion to allocation. As that work continues, McQueeney suggested the county launch a public outreach effort.
“With dollars on the table, people tend to have ideas,” she said. “I think there are ideas that can align with what we are trying to do. The public has good ideas, we need to be asking about them.”