Pandemic funds

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy speaks to the county's Rescue Assessment Board, a panel that is charged with recommending projects to be funded by the $25.5 million Washington County will receive in federal pandemic relief.

Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy has created an advisory board to help local government leaders identify projects to be funded by the $25.5 million coming to the county from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Washington County Community Rescue Assessment Board includes members from business, banking and agriculture, as well as five county commissioners, Washington County Circuit Court Clerk Brenda Downes and state Rep. Rebecca Alexander, R-Jonesborough.

Grandy said the panel would be assisting county commissioners in determining how federal COVID-19 relief funds should be spent. He said those funds might be spent on extending public water supply and workforce development — two issues that commissioners have deemed to be their top priorities.

He said the county’s Water Task Force has already begun work on identifying possible waterline extension projects.

“That’s already been teed up,” the mayor said. “We are ready to pull the trigger.”

Grandy told board members at their first meeting on Thursday that the complicated rules for spending the relief funds have created an “unusual situation” for county government, which he explained is an “archaic” subdivision of state government.

He said Washington County has suddenly become a “rich uncle,” and his office is receiving calls daily from people with ideas on how to spend those federal funds. Grandy said the county has already received $12 million in relief funds, which is nearly half of its allocated amount.

“This is a lot of money for us, but we need to figure out where are the best places to spend this money,” said Grandy, who suggested the funds should be “invested in projects for the long-term good” of Washington County.

Commissioner Jim Wheeler said it is important that the advisory board receives some direction from the 15 members of County Commission. Wheeler said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if a significant number of commissioners decide they want the county to spend most of the relief funds on water projects.

“We need to get a buy-in from the commission,” he said.

Grandy said money from the pandemic relief act comes with 151 pages of rules and regulations that specify how those federal funds can be spent.

He said county officials were briefed earlier in the week on a program offered by the state comptroller of the treasury’s office that would allow a county to send its federal relief funds to Nashville so that the state can determine if a proposed local project meets all the criteria under the relief plan.

“This would serve as a backstop,” Grandy said, noting the state comptroller’s office would be responsible for vetting projects. “If a project is later disallowed by the feds, the state would be on the hook for funding it, not the county.”

The mayor said that while he is waiting for additional information on the program, he believes it does offer many advantages to the county. He said one of them would be the opportunity to “take federal money for a project and leverage it with state dollars.”

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Press Senior Reporter

Robert Houk has served as a journalist and photographer at the Press since 1987. He is a recipient of the Associated Press Managing Editors Malcom Law Award for investigative reporting.

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