With nearly $7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan funds slated for delivery to Florida city and county governments in the near future, local elected officials and business leaders alike are eagerly awaiting a decision on how the cash can be spent. The Biden Administration is still reviewing proposed rules that will have a major impact on where officials can direct the money.
Some of the state’s largest counties will receive hundreds of millions of dollars, with Miami-Dade getting more than half a billion. Palm Beach County is slated to receive $292 million. But then there are the local cities that will also receive large sums. Municipalities in Palm Beach County are expecting a total of around $260 million.
Last year, business and government officials there worked together to figure out the best way to invest the windfall and get a good return on investment. In addition to a wide variety of programs to relieve struggling business owners and families who were hit hardest by the pandemic, infrastructure projects that would provide a longer-term return on investment also were a priority.
The county invested over $12.9 million in broadband infrastructure and internet access projects designed to address issues that were exacerbated by the pandemic. With school buildings closed, a number of students needed laptops and wireless internet access. In addition to the federal funds that helped procure laptops and wireless access cards, the county partnered with local businesses, including Florida Power and Light, which donated 1,000 utility poles to help build out the wireless network for students.
While the rules might change under the Biden Administration this year, business leaders say it won’t change their focus, especially since the new rules are likely to be more relaxed than the restrictions on last year’s CARES Act funding.
“A year later, there’s still a lot of work to do. Now we just have to finish what we started,” said Michele Jacobs, President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County. “All of the folks that worked on this last year remain focused on building out those key infrastructure projects. We still have 32 square miles in the county that is lacking broadband access, and we intend to finish it.”
But the cash won’t come all at once. The federal government plans to divide payments to city and county governments into two “tranches” that will be delivered about a year apart. But despite the amounts being split, the windfalls anticipated by those governments is still substantial, and in many cases will be the greatest influx of cash elected leaders have ever seen in city and county coffers.
The spending restrictions will be critical. During last year’s stimulus, for example, the Trump Administration restricted the cash to new spending only, barring cities from using the funds to backfill budget holes. That, in turn, forced communities to find creative ways to deploy the cash. But with the pandemic in full swing, most local governments at the time invested heavily in testing sites and other pandemic related programs.