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Randolph County, Mo., Debates Radio Upgrades With ARPA Funds

Roughly $2.4 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding is currently sitting in county coffers while officials determine how the funds can be spent. A decades-old public safety radio system is one project under discussion.

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(TNS) — The Randolph County Commission is letting about $2.4 million gift coming from President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) rest in its bank account as they are cautiously optimistic about making definitive plans on how to spend these funds within its jurisdiction. Another $2.4 million in ARPA monies is expected to be handed to the county within the next 5 years.

Despite having this substantial amount of extra monies not planned for sitting in its coffer, the county government is anxiously waiting to learn and accurately interpret federal guidelines about how ARPA monies can be spent.

"We have one big project we intend to use these funds for and we continue to look into other ways we can spread the funds that will help our citizens, but right now we're very cautious because we don't have all the answers from the federal government about how or what specifically those funds can be spent," said County Western District Commissioner John Hobbs on Tuesday, Aug. 17.

"We don't want to have the federal government come back to say that there were certain items of which (ARPA funds) were spent did not qualify under its guidelines because then the county would be on the hook to pay those monies back," Hobbs said. "You well know we would have spent money that we originally did not budget for or have to work with, so where would we get that money to pay the federal government back? That's why we're being cautious right now because we want concrete answers."

State officials believe Missouri will receive at least $2.8 billion in direct aid from the $1.9 trillion ARPA bill signed by the President last March. The state is also slated to receive $195 million for state and local capital spending needs. This Biden-backed plan is designed to provide financial aid to families, governments, businesses, schools, non-profits and others impacted by the pandemic.

According to the latest interim guidelines from the federal government, there are four categories for which ARPA funds can be used:
  • Revenue replacement for the provision of government services to the extent the reduction in revenue is due to the COVID-19 public health emergency
  • COVID-19 expenditures or negative economic impacts of COVID-19, including assistance to small businesses, households, and hard-hit industries, and economic recovery
  • Premium pay for essential workers
  • Investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure

"We haven't been able to get a clear answer yet. The first go-around of things the government said these funds can be spent on things for infrastructure, for roads, and some other stuff. Then they came back to say no to certain things," Hobbs said. "There are things that were once on the table, then were pulled off. That's why we're taking this slow right now."

The biggest item on the county's wish list to be addressed is the radio communication system that affects the sheriffs department, our road & bridge, ambulance department, the Moberly fire department and each of the county's rural fire departments.

"We have some radio communication used today that is about 20-plus years old, and there has been numerous problems that has come about in its use. There are many locations within our county where there are dead spots of not receiving a signal for example," Hobbs said. "We have joined the City of Moberly in hiring a consultant to study and address our radio communication system problems. Together, with all these departments and with Moberly's needs, we're trying to get everyone to be able to work together on the same communication system network that would be much more efficient and reliable than what we're using today."

Randolph County Sheriffs Chief Deputy Mike Barrett said his department's communication system is about two decades old and is challenged to obtain or keep a clear, open line of communication with deputies using portable units in certain parts of the county due to its signal interference or signal strength.

Moberly Police Department serves as the county's emergency 911 communication center. Police Chief Link said his department's Motorola communication system was updated two years ago when this well-used second- hand device was acquired free from a St .Louis County police station.

"I know there are certain areas in the county and some specific buildings where we are challenged with radio communication among our police officers, the county sheriffs deputies and fire department personnel. There are different reasons why there are problems with our communication such as radio wattage or signal strength of whether it's coming from a tower or from a car radio terminal that is not allowing a signal to travel as well as it should," Link said. "I believe we must first study to learn what is creating these failures within these common areas

Moberly is looking to install a new emergency 911 Zetron communication system soon, as well as upgrading its Motorola system.

"We have bids on purchasing a brand new emergency 911 dispatch system having some of the latest technology that we feel will be very useful, we're applying for grants to help us make that purchase, and we're working with the county and the consultant that was hired to study how we might best use the American Restoration Act funds," Police Chief Link said. "A new dispatch system will allow us to go from having no more than two console positions operating the dispatch communications to having three.

While there are some operational issues to resolve with its communication dispatch, Link said a greater challenge his department has been facing is a lack of bodies to serve the community's emergency needs.

"Finding operators, persons willing to fill and work these positions has been difficult not only here at Moberly, but I'm hearing this same problem with many agencies across the United States. The turnover is problematic in being able to employ someone in this position for more than one-to- two years," Link said. "These kind of positions are extremely important to fill. It can be a stressful position. But I think a lot of the problem of finding people to work is due to the COVID pandemic as people are choosing to stay away, take federal monies that are out there and not work, and perhaps because of the pay that is being offered."

Associate County Commissioner Hobbs noted that some of the ARPA monies may need to be set aside for project management and contingency planning. He also emphasized the commission is taking their time in its decision making process because they want to get things done right the first time.

"If we get a clear answer and understanding from the federal government that this (ARPA) money can be used on radio communication equipment, then this would be our No. 1 priority and would want to take care of getting it done as soon as possible," Hobbs said. "We're also waiting to learn a report from the consultant that is visiting with all the emergency management departments in our county to learn what our best options are."

Hobbs said while the commission waits to receive documentation to learn specifics about how ARPA monies can be spent, they are working with emergency and public safety personnel from each department within the county to further study and develop a course of action about enhancing radio communication

In addition, Eastern District Commissioner John Tracy said efforts are being made to contact government leaders within each respective township of the county to inform them about how ARPA monies may benefit their community for certain project as well.

In other recent business happenings executed by the county, Hobbs said a former senior citizens residential home that has been abandoned for several years and was located south of the Courthouse building was demolished and having its debris removed. A federal grant received through efforts made by the City of Huntsville were used for this project. The county plans to expand its parking lot space at that site.

Hobbs also said the county is in the process of paving all of the remaining gravel roadway and parking space area surrounding the Courthouse property. Hobbs said this subject was part of the county's original plan when the latest addition was made to the Courthouse. However, the commission has been making efforts in making frugal decisions about when and how to spend tax payers monies.

Tracy said the county was able to use a contract associated with the City of Moberly for the upcoming paving project at the Courthouse property in the amount of about $380,000, which was more than about a $230,000 estimated savings to the county.

"We take a more stringent, closer look about how we go about spending dollars," Tracy said. "We look for ways that it can be stretched, or study to see if certain projects can be delayed a bit to allow funds be directed toward something else we feel is more beneficial or need for our county."

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