Aiken County Council ad hoc committee has differing opinions on spending of Rescue Act Plan funds

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Jul. 24—Aiken County is expected to receive nearly $33.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act money, and an ad hoc committee of County Council is divided over how it should be spent.

That difference of opinion created a lively discussion when the four-member group met for the first time July 22 at the Aiken County Government Center.

The purpose of the committee is to make recommendations to County Council as a whole.

The county received half of its Rescue Plan Act allotment for COVID-19 relief, $16,594,941.50, on July 6. The rest will arrive "no sooner" than 12 months from then, according to the federal government.

Gary Bunker is County Council's chairman and also is serving as the chairman of the ad hoc group.

The committee's other members are Camille Furgiuele of District 2, Sandy Haskell of District 5 and Kelley Mobley of District 4.

Bunker said he believes in putting the bulk of the county's share of the Rescue Plan Act money into "a handful of large projects that will last for decades" and "benefit the greatest number of people in Aiken County."

Haskell expressed a similar view, suggesting that the funds should be used to pay for expensive, infrastructure-related work.

But Furgiuele made a proposal to give $1 million to each County Council member that they could use to provide grants in their respective districts and $2 million to Bunker, who could decide how to allocate his portion.

There are nine County Council members in all, so the total set aside would be $10 million.

"I realize this is out-of-the-box thinking and could involve a lot of thought and planning by each Council member," Furgiuele said. "But it would ensure that part of this revenue is distributed to each district in a fair and unbiased manner."

She added that Council member Andrew Siders had suggested to her that "each Council member could appoint a committee of individuals in their district" to assist in determining the grant recipients.

Mobley spoke out in favor of Furgiuele's plan.

"I think folks need to see us tackle some specific challenges that we have within our specific districts," he said, "so that we can say, 'Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, we're putting some money into your area.'"

But Bunker sharply criticized that spending strategy, warning that "secondary consequences sometimes overwhelm good intentions."

He gave several reasons for his opposition, including the proposal's potential to cause what he believes would be an "administrative nightmare."

Another Bunker concern was public perception.

He said people would believe that County Council members were "awarding friends and supporters" instead of making unbiased decisions in selecting the recipients of funds "because public distrust of elected officials is at an all-time high."

Bunker also mentioned the possibility that voters would not support a future Capital Project Sales Tax referendum if they thought Rescue Plan Act money was "frittered away" instead of being used to improve infrastructure and facilities.

In general, according to a presentation prepared by Aiken County staff for the meeting, the "allowed uses" for Rescue Plan Act funds are as follows:

—To support public health response and to address negative economic impacts.

—To replace public sector revenue loss.

—To provide premium pay for essential workers.

—To pay for water, sewer and infrastructure needs.

County staff also put together a list of potential projects, potential purchases and funding requests received by the county that would or might be eligible for Rescue Plan Act money.

The ad hoc committee reviewed the list and Bunker polled members to determine which items they were the most interested in supporting.

Receiving a majority vote in favor were the following (along with the estimated cost of each):

—Expansion of the Aiken County detention center ($15 million).

—Sage Mill pump station upgrades ($1 million).

—Communications system for rural volunteer fire departments ($2 million).

—HVAC replacements for the Aiken County detention center ($100,000).

—HVAC replacement for the Aiken County Judicial Center ($50,000).

—Upgrades to and new furniture for the New Ellenton-Jackson-Beech Island Summary Court ($520,000).

—In-car camera systems and laptops for the Aiken County Sheriff's Office ($275,000).

The vote for the following was a 2-2 tie:

—Upgrades to the Horse Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant ($10 million).

—U.S. Highway 1 sewer collection line ($9 million).

—Horse Creek trunk line rehabilitation ($14 million).

—Assistance to small businesses and community groups ($10 million).

—Three additional fire tankers for volunteer fire departments ($750,000).

The construction of a new complex for Aiken County Sheriff's Office was among the projects on the list that didn't receive at least two favorable votes. Its estimated cost is $25 million.

"I was just trying to see what was attractive (to ad hoc committee members)," said Bunker of the polling process. "We have a lot of options, and we've got to start winnowing. This was just the first step of where we want to go. Certainly, there is nothing that can't be brought back to the committee later for consideration."

The next meeting of the ad hoc group is scheduled for 6 p.m. Aug. 10 at the Government Center.

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