Washington County officials review ‘approved’ Covid relief requests; Committee blocks reconsideration of ‘ineligible’ applications

FAYETTEVILLE — Washington County Justices of the Peace voted Monday not to reconsider applications for federal funds for Covid relief funds that were initially deemed ineligible.

The County Services Committee of the Quorum Court voted not to consider 11 money requests under the county money portion of the American Rescue Plan Act. Washington County received about $46.5 million in federal Covid relief funds under the law.

Justice of the Peace Beth Coger of District 9 made a motion to review 10 motions, and Justice of the Peace Evelyn Rios Stafford of District 12 made the remaining motion.

Under the procedures used by the Committee, a majority of the 15 Justices of the Peace had to vote in favor of the request to reconsider any request initially deemed ineligible. The committee voted not to reconsider the 11 applications.

Representatives from some of the nonprofit organizations deemed ineligible spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting. In each case, they indicated that their applications were for projects that should be eligible, and in some cases the county’s review process missed information that was included or misinterpreted the applications.

Coger said after the meeting she plans to continue working to get justices of the peace to hear from applicants who have questions or believe their applications have been wrongly denied.

“I was surprised; I thought they would want to do the right thing,” Coger said of the committee’s denying organizations the opportunity to be heard. “But I do not give up.”

There were 11 applications for bailout funds that were deemed eligible and were on the agenda for Monday’s meeting. The authorities making these requests gave short presentations and answered questions. If the justices of the peace so choose, regulations to provide the requested money will be drafted and presented to the committee at a future meeting.

The process of distributing bailout funds to non-governmental groups was a bone of contention for several months, with some nonprofits noting that the Quorum Court had awarded funds to some groups without a process for accepting and evaluating applications. The county has contracted with the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District in Harrison to review applications and make a decision on their eligibility.

The district provided approximately $2.9 million to Upskill NWA for a job training program to help address shortages of skilled healthcare workers and an additional $1.9 million to Returning Home, a Springdale non-profit group that helps imprisoned men to reintegrate into the community.

According to County Treasurer Bobby Hill, the county has committed about $41.7 million of the approximately $46.5 million in rescue plan funds made available to the county.

The rescue plan money that Washington County has already committed includes about $8.3 million in bonus payments for county employees who have worked during the Covid-19 pandemic, about $5.4 million in self-contained breathing apparatus for rural fire departments of the county, $1.1 million for Central Emergency Medical services, approximately $1.1 million for remodeling and new consoles for the 911 dispatcher, and $750,000 for new HVAC units and security cameras and software for the prison.

The district also directly allocated approximately $8.8 million in bailout plan funds for a Covid-related expansion of the prison, and an additional $10 million received under the Act and later designated by the district as revenue replacement funds were also allocated to the Prison expansion project planned.

An additional $1 million was allocated for architectural and engineering work on a proposed new emergency operations center for the county. District Judge Patrick Deakins said the initial cost estimate for the building was $5.5 million and the money from the bailout plan could be used on this project.

Also Monday, Justice of the Peace Willie Leming spoke during the meeting’s public comment period to say he had unanswered questions about the county’s decision to demolish a partially completed bridge project. Leming said demolition of the almost-completed bridge structure is a waste of county funds.

Leming said he wanted to know who approved the project and who made the decision to demolish the bridge. He said both Carl Gales, chief of staff to former District Judge Joseph Wood, and Charles Ward, former road inspector, left their positions with the district before a contract was signed for the project in August 2021.

Washington County Judge Patrick Deakins said after the meeting that he was “taken aback” by Leming’s complaints at the meeting.

“I find that quite ridiculous and unfair,” Deakins said. “If Judge Leming has questions, we are more than willing to answer them. We’ve invited Judge Leming to speak with us. He took no steps to come in and speak to us.”

Last month, the county demolished a bridge at the intersection of Wyola and Parker Branch streets. The county spent approximately $495,000 on the bridge from April 2021, when bids were received, through October 2022, when the bridge was completed.

Deakins said at the time the decision to demolish the bridge was announced that he and his administrative team had reviewed all of the county’s road and bridge projects after taking office in January, and officials said the bridge will go ahead as originally planned county Another $1.1 million are to be completed.

Demolishing the bridge structure and replacing it with an intersection containing a series of 42-inch box ducts will bring the total cost to about $664,000 with the rehabilitation work — including demolishing the existing bridge structure and installing the Box Culverts – which cost about $170,000.

Crowder said the bridge was built using some poured concrete sections that the county bought after they were ordered and then weren’t used on a Rogers bridge project. Using the taller structure meant the access roads would have to be built on both Parker Branch Road and Wyola Road, Crowder said, which the county estimated would require more than 48,000 cubic yards of filler soil. The fill dirt alone cost an estimated $486,680, according to the county.

On other matters, the committee proposed discussion of an ordinance requiring all ordinances and resolutions approved by the Quorum Court to be posted online within 30 days of their passage. State statutes currently require county ordinances to be codified every five years. The ordinance was discussed at the March 16 Quorum Court session and remanded to the County Services Committee for further discussion.

Suitable applicants

Washington County’s review process found 11 of the 46 applications the county received for money under the American Rescue Plan Act to be eligible. The total amount requested in these applications is $564,681.

NWA Food Bank: $100,000

Fayetteville Lions Club: $70,000

Credit Advice from Arkansas: $10,000

Washington County Historical Society: $23,000

Ronald McDonald House Charities by Arkhoma: $70,681

Responder 1st Assistance Program: $60,000

Elkin’s Senior Activity and Wellness Center: $41,000

Farmington Senior Activity and Wellness Center: $48,000

Fayetteville Senior Activity and Wellness Center: $87,000

Lincoln Senior Activity and Wellness Center: $25,000

Prairie Grove Senior Activity and Wellness Center: $30,000

Source: Washington County

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