Chatham Co. Commissioners discuss how to spend tens of millions in federal grant money

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – The Chatham County Board of Commissioners is starting to discuss how to spend money from the American Rescue Plan Act.

The federal law, passed by Congress in March, allocated over $56 million to the county divided into two grants. The county received $28 million back in May and will get that same amount next May.

At a workshop on Monday, county officials revealed there are 21 projects in consideration for funding. Commissioners have until the end of August to send a draft of the grant’s uses to the federal government. 

The U.S. Treasury Department regulates the funds and requires extensive reporting requirements for projects. They must also fall under one of 66 categories and prioritize certain communities. 

“It’s taken into consideration your poverty, your unemployment, free and reduced lunches, the individuals in that community who have less than a high school graduation rate along with a lot of other what we call high-risk indicators in a community,” said Strategic Planning Administrator Tara Jennings.

Some of the requirements can cause confusion. During Monday’s workshop, commissioners went back and forth over whether storm drainage projects fall under one of the categories. 

“There are parts of Chatham County that are having serious drainage problems and we’ve got to do something to address it,” said District 1 Commissioner Helen Stone. “I won’t let go of this one.”

Officials estimate the county lost $18 million in revenue amid the pandemic. Any unused funds from the grants must be sent back to the Treasury.

“We’re not going to pay any money back because you have to pay it back with interest,” said Chairman Chester Ellis. “So we’re going to make sure what we’re doing is what is in these guidelines, and we will go from there.”

During Monday’s workshop, commissioners used Monopoly-style money to “put funding” towards projects they consider most important. Among them, an initiative to expand broadband access county-wide. 

“We don’t have enough network in the ground now to do anything the [Internet Service Providers] can’t do already,” said Chatham County IT Director Nick Batey. “We don’t need to spend that much to make an impact. So whatever we can put there, can make a big impact in what we can do.” 

Some of the projects that garnered the most funding in the simulation included sewers, water lines, storm drainage and grants for small businesses. 

One proposed project that received zero Monopoly dollars: COVID-19 vaccine outreach and incentives.

The projects prioritized during Monday’s exercise was not a final decision, but a way to gauge where commissioners stand. Next week, commissioners will submit their final priorities to the board. 

After the draft is submitted at the end of August, officials say they plan to host forums in the fall to make sure the priorities align with community members.

The county has until the end of 2024 to use the funds. 

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