Henry County Board approves allocation of ARPA funds at special meeting

Beth Welbers
Geneseo Republic
Henry County courthouse clock

The Henry County Board met for a special meeting in advance of their regular scheduled meeting to discuss and approve the allocation of the $ 9.4 Million in American Rescue Plan Act funds that the county will be receiving.  Half of the funding was received in June of 2021, and the balance will be scheduled to arrive in June of 2022. Ned Richardson was absent.

Specific guidelines are given for the use of these funds.  The Board outlined four categories or "Pillars" on which to use to determine the allocations.  The four are : County Government and Infrastructure, Public Safety and Mental Health, Broadband and Resident Utility Credits, and Community Assistance.

Erin Knackstadt, County Administrator, outlined the tentative budget for each pillar, and those projects either already in the works, or anticipated.  The first pillar, County Government Infrastructure had $1.5 million allocated.  Information Technology upgrades to the courthouse and jail in the amount of $600,000 are in large part already underway, including computer software that  standardizes the courthouse and jail operations.  HVAC upgrades are going out for bids, with $900,000 allocated for those improvements.  A possible Ameren rebate for part of the HVAC  expenses may be available, and if so, those funds will be returned to the pool.

The second pillar,  of Public Safety and Mental Health,  the Office of Emergency Management, has already had $750,000 allocated, and improvements to the former Health Department building outside of Kewanee are underway.  Mat Schnepple, Director of the OEM, expects the project to remain within the budget. The OEM department is instrumental in organizing vaccine clinics, training and assistance for disaster preparedness throughout the surrounding counties.

The Health Department had been allocated $459,430 in funds. This will be used to expand mental health  services, making those services accessible to segments of the community currently under served.  They will begin with existing staff and plan to hire additional professionals.

Much discussion surrounded pillar number three, for resident utility credit and broadband.  The county identified 21,409 households that could qualify for the credit.  After a straw poll vote, the board members authorized $1.1 million to go to county residents who are billed for power in the form of a $50 credit.  Renters whose landlords pay the electric bill. would need to contact the County Administrator to see if they qualify.  At this time, it is not certain what month will reflect the credit.

One of the biggest initiatives of the ARPA provisions is the expansion of broadband internet into the rural communities.  County Administrator Knackstadt likened the expansion of broadband to the Rural Electrification Act of the 1930's, for bringing all communities to a level playing field.  Chairwoman Kippy Breeden pointed out that broadband accessibility increases home values 5%, thus enabling the county to drop it's tax rates, which has happened three years in a row.

The county will be partnering with Geneseo Communications and Woodhull Telephone to expand broadband fiber to communities that as yet, lack that infrastructure. The partnership would maximize the investment, as well as keeping the funds within the community.  The first phase will expand fiber to Annawan, Atkinson and Cambridge.  Phase two is proposed to bring broadband directly to houses along Wolf Road from an existing line.

Currently Mid-Century Communications is expanding broadband into the Galva area, outside of the county's program.  Orion and Bishop Hill have already been covered with broadband in an earlier initiative with local telecom companies.  Kewanee is currently working it's own arrangements with broadband expansion. Of the board members voting,  six members abstained due to conflicts, two were against the project entirely, seven were in favor of one phase, and five were in favor of the project in its entirety.

The fourth pillar, Community Assistance, has $100,00 allocated to the Office of Economic Development, Jim Kelly, director,  will oversee the distribution of those funds.  An Ad Hoc committee will be charged with the collection of information on projects brought to them for consideration on the remaining allocated funds.  Approved projects will be taken to the finance committee, and on to the full board for approval.

The board approved the allocations, and moved it on to to be voted on at the full board meeting the following Thursday. 

Anyone seeking information on submitting a project to the AdHoc committee for consideration should contact Erin Knackstadt, County Administrator, 309-937-3400 or email eknackstadt@henrycty.com