The massive $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act is pouring money into local governments as people and their communities continue to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Union County is receiving $5.2 million from the federal aid. La Grande is receiving $2.77 million. The seven other incorporated cities in Union County will receive funds ranging from $30,000 to $450,000. Wallowa County is receiving $1.4 million, and the cities there will receive $50,000 to $230,000.
Our local governments face an array of decisions on how to allocate these funds, and those won’t be easy to make. There are a host of competing priorities and needs that seek a one-time infusion of funds. Our elected leaders must sift through the ideas that sound grand and decide what needs the money the most.
La Grande in 2020 used some general fund money to create a low-interest loan program to help businesses in town. Early this month, City Manager Robert Strope reported there still is about $185,000 in the program. That’s an indicator not to use the incoming funds for another grant or loan program.
We suggest local governments instead look for ways to use these funds to help a wide swath of their communities and the local economy, as long as, of course, the federal rules guiding the use of the funds allow for that. With spring here and Union and Wallowa counties in the state’s lower risk category for COVID-19, boosting tourism could prove a valuable boon.
A group in neighboring Umatilla County consisting of the Pendleton Economic Development Department, the Pendleton Convention Center, the Pendleton Chamber of Commerce and the Pendleton Round-Up Association has developed a plan to receive $250,000 to create a broad-based effort to beef up tourism. Local governments in Union and Wallowa counties should give careful consideration to a similar plan.
Tourism is a vital economic element to the communities of Northeast Oregon, from the Pendleton Round-Up to fishing on the Grande Ronde to riding the Wallowa Lake Tramway. There are no doubt plenty of Oregonians looking to escape the strict rigors of extreme risk counties. Our corner of the state offers scenic vistas, abundant outdoor access, local dining, craftspeople and artists all worth checking out.
Yes, pressing concerns abound for local governments, in particular infrastructure improvements. La Grande is rebuilding one of its roads right now. The $2.77 million it’s getting would rebuild a few miles of roads, but a better move would be to invest in downtown parking.
This is a time for La Grande to consider where it could build a parking structure, perhaps akin to what McMinnville has — a large, multilevel free public parking structure a few blocks from its downtown core.
The counties, cities and even school districts — which also are going to get a share of ARPA — could work together to provide better rural broadband access. One of the common laments that came out of online education was the difficulty of getting decent internet access for all students. Several million in federal funds could help build out such access.
Local leaders must be careful not to spread this infusion of money too thin. And if they can identify vital infrastructure projects that need improvement, they should articulate the reasons why and be willing to back it with a vote.
There are not many times local governments are going to receive a chunk of change from the feds, and we are not suggesting any of these projects are simple, but these and others are worthy of serious consideration and discussion.