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Commissioner Rick Bailey joked that, within several minutes time during Monday’s meeting of the Johnson County Commissioners Court, commissioners managed to spend $1 million and get it right back.

Commissioners hired GrantWorks to oversee spending of the $34 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds earmarked for the county then approved the refinancing of about $15,8 million of 2015 bonds.

GrantWorks will oversee compliance and other issues related to the ARPA funds, of which Johnson County has already received half. GrantWorks’ cost for such services may total $1.6 million. That figure, according to the contract commissioners approved, depends on milestones that is how much of the $34 million the county spends by the deadline.

The federal government distributed ARPA funds to counties, cities and other governmental entities to offset and/or mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Any projects undertaken or funds spent will have to be approved by the commissioners court.

Commissioner Larry Woolley balked at GrantWorks’ fee and argued that the county should be able to handle dispensation of the funds in house provided extra employees are hired for the auditor’s office.

“We’ve been cautioned to move slowly on use of these funds by our commissioner and judges association,” Woolley said. “I don’t know that we need [GrantWorks] when we could probably add a couple of more people. I think we need to step back and look at other possibilities rather than commit to $1.6 million today.”

County Judge Roger Harmon disagreed.

“There’s a lot more to these ARPA funds and I think they’re a lot more comprehensive than they look like,” Harmon said. “We went out for requests for proposals and GrantWorks was by far the least expensive company. My fear is that is we go out and spend several million on some project and the federal government comes back and tells us that doesn’t qualify then we’re going to be on the hook for those costs.”

Harmon also mentioned CARES Act funding, an earlier round of federal COVID-19 relief funding.

“We left a lot of that money on the table and didn’t spend it because we didn’t have the guidance of an outside firm that deals with these issues,” Harmon said. 

Commissioner Mike White agreed.

“This is a lot of money and these guys have a big staff and they know this stuff,” White said.

Commissioner Kenny Howell offered similar arguments of support.

“It’s a lot of money and an amount we’ve never dealt with,” Howell said. “Our auditor doesn’t have the staff to deal with everything involved with this. For them to try to hire new people at this time when we don’t know who we would get or the quality of the applicant pool is probably not the best idea. GrantWorks have experience dealing with these matters better than we do.”

A representative from GrantWorks said the milestones in the contract as written ensure that the county will not be billed the full amount unless all the milestones, that is projects and funds spent, are reached.

County Attorney Bill Moore added that the contract contains a cancellation clause upon 10 days notice by either side.

“That way if we get into this and you don’t like them or they don’t like us and would only have to pay the fees accrued as of that time,” Moore said.

Bailey made the motion to approve acceptance of the contract and said things need to get moving given that Johnson County has yet to approve any projects or expenditures.

Although commissioners have made no decisions, they have discussed using the funds to increase broadband access throughout the county and build a new 911 dispatch center among other possible projects.

Big savings

Commissioners  voted to refund $15,870 worth of 2015 bonds. Doing so will drop the interest rate to 1.906 percent and save taxpayers $1,380,829 in repayment fees.

The bonds were initially issued to fund the renovation and expansion of the Johnson County Jail.

“That’s the only debt we have,” Harmon said. “You look at the size of Johnson County and our debt rate is minimal.”

Johnson County, in fact, has the 12th lowest debt rate out of the state’s 254 counties with a debt rate, Woolley added.

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