HARLINGEN — More than $22 million is streaming into city coffers as officials mull water, sewer and drainage projects aimed at creating jobs to fuel the economy.
Across the Rio Grande Valley and around the nation, officials are counting on the new $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act to spark recovery from the pandemic’s economic slowdown while igniting a boom.
During the next year, the federal program is projected to pump $22.1 million into the city’s $48.6 million general fund budget, with the first $11 million expected to come in next month.
Meanwhile, about $20 million is flowing into Valley International Airport, City Manager Dan Serna said Tuesday.
“That’s part of the economic recovery,” he said. “The economy has been severely impacted by the pandemic. This is a positive thing for the city and the region.”
At City Hall, officials are considering pumping some of the money into projects such as water, sewer and drainage upgrades, a $4 million plan to expand broadband coverage along with money to offset revenue losses.
“We’re about to cover revenue shortfalls and infrastructure projects,” Serna said, noting cities across the Valley are also planning big projects.
“We’re all going to be putting up projects in a very short timeframe,” he said. “You’re undertaking infrastructure projects that are going to put a lot of people to work. They’re going to generate income and that’s going to have a big effect.”
So far, Serna is proposing a $4 million project aimed at expanding broadband coverage.
“The intent is to bring the hot spots to the street lights so people can actually bring it into their homes,” he said. “Other cities in the region are also working on it. It’s going to be great for the entire region.”
By early next month, Serna plans to meet with city commissioners to plan projects.
“It’s like Christmas in a sense, in that this money was not expected and obviously there are lots of needs and we’ll have to decide on what the most pressing needs or priorities are — certainly, a lot of opportunities to put the money to good use in regards to infrastructure, water and wastewater, drainage and those kinds of things,” Mayor Chris Boswell told commissioners during a meeting last week.
Now, Boswell is requesting staff speed up planning to help line up building materials and contracting services amid a regional construction boom expected to continue through the program’s Dec. 21, 2024, spending deadline.
“One of the things that I’m concerned about is everybody got money — the county got money, other municipalities got money and, you know, there’s already difficulty in obtaining building materials and supplies,” he said during the April 21 meeting.
“There’s a lot of competition for contracting and contractors and so probably we need to be smart about the decisions we make to try to avoid issues and try to get moving as quick as possible so we’re on top of the list rather than on the bottom of the list in terms of acquiring building materials, you know, and/or contracting services,” he said.
Questions surround spending criteria
During the meeting, Robert Rodriguez, the city’s finance director, told commissioners questions remain regarding the program’s spending criteria.
“The guidance on the spending or what we can spend it on it still coming in — it’s still a little bit vague,” he said.
“We expect more guidance on how the funds can be spent similar to the (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES),” he said. “As we went along, when we received money we got additional guidance and questions and answers to see what you can spend the money on and what you cannot spend the money on. So we expect similar guidance to come out as the money comes to the cities.”
During his presentation, Rodriguez said the program allows the money to be spent “to respond to the public health emergency with respect to the coronavirus disease 2019 or its negative economic impacts including assistance to households, small business and nonprofits or aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel and hospitality.”
Rodriguez said the money could also be spent “to respond to workers performing essential work during the COVID-19 public health emergency by providing premium pay to eligible workers … that are performing such essential work or by providing grants to eligible employers that have eligible workers who perform essential work.”
The program also allows the money to be spent to offset city revenue lost as a result of the pandemic along with water, sewer, drainage and broadband upgrades, he said.