Holman Op-ed: An American Rescue Plan Act reality check

In recent weeks, there have been comments and insinuations made about the funding that local jurisdictions received from the federal government via the CARES Act and—by extension—the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which is also referred to as State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF).

Apparently, the misunderstanding centers around the notion that local governments aren’t quite sure what to do with the funding.

First, it’s worth describing the fiscal reality and status quo that local jurisdictions are faced with. Local governments in Wisconsin operate under what is likely one of the strictest levy limit policies in the United States. I can appreciate some of the thinking that went into this, but the prolonged nature of this policy has led to some unintended consequences and started pitting things that the public values at a high level against each other.

Similarly, it has put many jurisdictions into the position of having to make difficult funding decisions in core, mandatory service, and program areas like Health and Human Services and Public Safety.

So, what local governments have been discussing is how to best leverage this one-time funding to address recovery efforts, shore up areas within their organization that have come under tremendous pressures due to increased workload in mandated areas that are out of their control, and to attempt to put their organizations and their constituents on better footing in a post-pandemic reality. This is no small feat, and it requires careful thinking and being prudent.

In turn, this requires taking your time. Thankfully, the window within which governments can use this funding is through the end of 2024 and in certain scenarios through 2026.

Is there an urgent need to get that funding out the door? In some cases, yes, but given that this needs to be treated differently than the annual budget cycle and we have the time to use, why wouldn’t we? The annual budget process is often like a bad cast on a fishing trip where a bird’s nest of line needs to be untangled throughout the year so that when one budget is adopted, we can cast again and start dealing with a new bird’s nest.

As anyone who fishes knows, you have to take your time to untangle that knot, and local government—unlike us who enjoy getting out on the water—cannot simply cut the line and re-string. In many ways, the ARPA/SLFRF funding presents more casting opportunities and taking time to load one’s reel, treat the line, and prepare for casts we know will catch fish.

In summary, this is not the time for hurrying. Local governments are hard at work and should be afforded the time they need to make prudent, fiscally sound decisions that mirror the work they do each year to carry their jurisdictions forward into another year of pain points driven by the levy limit, unfunded mandates, and all of the surprises we encounter along the way that cannot be planned for but must be addressed.

Chris Holman is the Portage County Executive and can be reached at 715-346-1997.

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