Instead of funding new health building, Kane County considers improving existing facilities

Instead of using $18 million in pandemic relief funds from the federal government to pay for a new public health building, Kane County is looking to use the funds mainly to improve and maintain current facilities.

The federal funds were provided to the county through the American Rescue Plan Act, which is commonly called ARPA. Kane County must give back to the federal government any of the funds it has not committed for a specific project by the end of this year, so the Kane County ARPA Committee is rushing to get eligible projects approved.

In total, Kane County has $19 million in ARPA funds left to allocate. The majority of that money, $18 million, was previously being considered to help fund the controversial public health building project that the Kane County Board voted down in late March.

At a meeting on April 24, ARPA Committee members recommended spending almost $15 million on 12 projects, which included the renovation of the heating, ventilation and cooling system in the county’s two jail towers, projected to cost over $7 million, and the replacement of the chillers in the county’s judicial center, projected to cost $2 million.

The 12 projects also passed the Kane County Executive Committee by a single unanimous vote without any discussion at its meeting on Thursday. Now, those projects will go before the full Kane County Board for final approval.

The rest of the federal funds given to the county through ARPA, roughly $4 million, is set to be assigned to projects at the May meeting of the ARPA Committee, according to a presentation given by Jarett Sanchez, committee chair and District 24 Kane County Board member, at the committee’s April 24 meeting.

The goal, he said, is for all of the county’s ARPA funds to be assigned to projects by the APRA Committee in May, and for all of those projects to be approved by the Kane County Board in June.

Sanchez said he doesn’t like being rushed to approve projects, but that the discussion around the new public health building project took longer than anyone expected.

“We really are under crunch time,” he said at the April 24 meeting of the ARPA Committee.

If the projects are approved by the Kane County Board, there are still a number of steps that would need to be taken before the funds are legally considered to be “obligated” by the federal government, which all need to happen by the end of the year to prevent the federal government from taking the funds back, according to Sanchez.

He said that many of the projects that were approved by the APRA Committee in April were being considered as “backups” if the public health building project was not approved, so they went through months of planning and are not just being thrown out as a last resort.

ARPA has strict requirements for which projects and programs the funds are allowed to support, and Sanchez said the proposed projects are all allowed under current federal guidance.

Kane County was already planning to do many of the projects in its five-year capital improvement plan, according to Kane County Executive Director of IT and Buildings Management Roger Fahnestock.

He said county staff was originally planning to fund these projects through the county’s general fund, but since ARPA funds are available, it makes more sense to use those federal funds and save local dollars.

Two such projects are the $7 million HVAC replacement project in the county’s two jail towers and a $1.44 million HVAC replacement project in the sheriff’s office, Fahnestock said.

The Kane County Board voted in late February to start those projects by hiring an engineering firm to redesign the HVAC system in the jail and sheriff’s office.

Similar projects that are being considered for ARPA money include HVAC replacements in other law enforcement buildings like the shooting range, hot water improvements for the jail and HVAC replacements in the Kane County Health Department building in Aurora.

However, one project assigned ARPA funds at the April meeting was not about facility improvements. The ARPA Committee assigned over $850,000 to the county’s proposed Food and Farm Resiliency Project, which could offer grants of between $10,000 and $25,000 to local farmers.

“We’ve got such a great opportunity in the western part of Kane County to be leaders in local food, so this kind of project and expenditure really helps move us in that direction,” Sanchez said.

According to the meeting’s agenda, the proposed project would provide grants for food-growing farms in Kane County to help cover the cost of operating expenses, freeing up funds for farmers to more easily make long-term investments in farm infrastructure and business growth.

The proposed project would address the unmet needs of farmers negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and make farms more resilient to future supply chain disruptions, the agenda said.