The Cheshire County Delegation has approved more than $7 million in expenditures to be funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, including money to bring all county employees up to at least a $15-per-hour wage.
On Aug. 9, the county’s state representatives approved spending that will be used to aid municipalities, businesses and nonprofits, as well as county operations. The delegation has OK’d spending for about half of the county’s total ARPA allotment, allocating $7.2 million out of nearly $14.8 million, according to a news release the county issued late last week.
The money will be used to support the county’s $60.8 million budget for 2021, which the county delegation approved in April.
“The American Rescue Plan Act has made it possible for Cheshire County to deliver timely relief to its residents without incurring an additional tax burden,” said N.H. Rep. Dan Eaton, D-Stoddard, chairman of the county delegation, in the release. “As approved, this budget keeps county taxes unchanged from 2020.”
The American Rescue Plan Act was signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. The money is being distributed to communities across the country to help in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to $750,000 allocated for raises for county employees, other planned expenditures include $2.3 million for energy upgrades to county properties, and $1 million each for the Maplewood Nursing Home reconstruction project and emergency grants for businesses and nonprofits. Another million dollars is set to be distributed among Cheshire County towns and the city of Keene, and $6,500 is being used for a summer concert series welcoming people back to the county’s public spaces.
Since the ARPA money is a one-time payment — in two disbursements — the release says county officials realize additional investments will need to be made moving forward, specifically regarding county wages. But County Administrator Chris Coates said bringing all employees up to a minimum of $15 per hour has been in the works for several years, as a way to make the county more competitive with other local employers, and the county already has some potential sources for that money in the future.
“One of the things that we’ve been doing for the past four or five years is looking at other ways we can generate more revenue and not rely solely on the tax base to offset our budget increases,” Coates said. “We’ve had success in that.”
Coates explained that several programs have provided the county with additional revenue streams in recent years. The county jail in Keene has taken on more federal inmates, which Coates said brings in at least $1.8 million annually.
He said the county has also been able to expand its System of Care program, a Medicaid-funded program that helps students who are at risk of requiring out-of-district placement, which has brought in an added $400,000 to $500,000 yearly. And in the past few years, he added, the county has seen an increase in the Medicaid payments it receives through Maplewood.
The county typically has between 465 and 475 employees, but currently has a staff of 432, in positions ranging from administrative work and law enforcement to health care.
Before the delegation approved the raises, which are expected to go into effect in mid-September, roughly 60 county employees were making less than $15 an hour, with the lowest wage being $12.50, Coates said. But he said county officials knew that they couldn’t stop at just bringing people up to a minimum of $15 an hour, and said that employees already earning that much or more should get raises as well.
He explained that the ARPA money will be phased into the budget over the next four years, in amounts that decrease each year until the expense of the raises has been fully absorbed into the county’s regular budget.
The largest chunk of Cheshire County’s ARPA funds will be spent on energy upgrades at the county’s three campuses — the county hall facility in downtown Keene, the county jail on Route 101 in Keene, and the Maplewood Nursing Home in Westmoreland. Coates said these will include a broad range of improvements, such as new LED lighting, automated heating and cooling controls and updating HVAC units.
One million dollars allocated from the county’s ARPA money to its towns and to Keene will be used to help with any municipal projects or unanticipated costs related to the pandemic.
Keene City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said she believes Keene’s portion is about $248,000, leaving just over three quarters of the money to be split between the 22 towns in the county. However, Dragon said Keene officials have not yet discussed how that money will be put to use.
Another million will be used to award grants to businesses and nonprofits that have been impacted by the pandemic. Coates said these grants and the money to municipalities will be one-time awards that end when the $1 million runs out, but that they could be funded again if the county receives more assistance in the future.
Maplewood Nursing Home will receive $1 million to help with costs associated with its recent renovation project, which Coates said is largely completed. But the project ran roughly two months behind schedule due to delays from pandemic-related restrictions, such as needing to keep workers away from residents, he said.
“At the end of the day, had COVID not been there, there would have been no issues whatsoever,” Coates said of the project timeline.
Meanwhile, the concert series being funded by the ARPA money has already launched, with two performances so far in August, one at the county building in downtown Keene and the other at Railroad Square. Coates said additional concerts are scheduled around the county, including in Jaffrey, Swanzey, Walpole and Winchester.
He commended the work of the county’s delegation and commissioners who he said took a very community-oriented approach to divvying up the money and supported the recommendations of staff.
“I think that they should be recognized for their foresight and thoughtful and pragmatic thinking on this,” Coates said.