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Our Town: Palm Beach in line for $3.7 million in federal aid to cover pandemic-related budget shortfalls

The town of Palm Beach expects to receive its share of federal aid to local governments whose budgets have taken a beating because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The town should receive an estimated $3.7 million as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, town officials say.

The American Rescue Plan is a $1.9 trillion package passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in March. It includes $350 billion in direct relief for state, county and local governments.

The money will come in two halves – the first in May and the second a year later.
Local governments can use the money to provide government services in areas where they have lost revenue because of the national health emergency.

It can also be applied to necessary investments in water, sewer or broadband infrastructure, Financial Director Jane Le Clainche said.

Other eligible uses include premium pay for eligible workers performing essential work during the pandemic; and pandemic-related “assistance to households, small business and nonprofits or aid to impacted industries such as tourism, travel and hospitality,” Le Clainche wrote in a March 30 memo to Town Manager Kirk Blouin.

There are some restrictions: The money cannot be used to directly or indirectly reduce any tax, and it can’t be deposited into a pension fund.

Local governments will be required to provide a detailed accounting of the use of funds, Le Clainche said.

Overall town revenues were slightly over budget for the year that ended Sept. 30, she said. But there were revenue losses in a few areas that may fall under the assistance guidelines. If so, the town could use the federal aid for any local government cost or purpose, such as the purchase of new technology systems, she said.

The town’s Par 3 Golf Course revenues were $436,314 under budget for the year that ended Sept. 30, and the federal aid could be used to offset those losses, she said.

The aid might also be applied toward the cost of several sanitary sewer projects the town has planned, including a long-term lining of the pipes, which Town Engineer Patricia Strayer said are vulnerable to infiltration and inflow. There are 40 miles of pipe in the system.

Blouin said it’s up to the Town Council to decide how the money is used, but he doesn’t foresee it being spent “on any projects that we weren’t going to be doing at some point in the future anyway.”

He told the council at its April 13 meeting that “infrastructure projects are very expensive. It won’t be a hard thing for the town to identify uses for the money.”

The town is keeping an eye on other potential economic stimulus aid from the federal and state governments. One is a community projects program planned to be part of a future economic stimulus bill, Le Clainche said.

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, is allowed to submit a list of 10 projects that, if approved, would be part of the Moving Forward Act, which is a $1.5 trillion bill for infrastructure improvements.

The town has applied for two improvements to be included on the list.

One of these is a proposed expansion of the law enforcement camera surveillance system at a cost of $100,000, Le Clainche said.

The other is a proposed rehabilitation of the sand transfer plant on Singer Island, north of the Lake Worth Inlet north jetty.

The plant captures downdrift sand that would otherwise be blocked by the inlet’s navigation channel and pumps it through a pipe onto the northern shore of Palm Beach Island.

Palm Beach County operates the plant under a contract with the town, which is responsible for all upgrades and repairs.

The town has expressed concern over the condition of the plant, which has been repaired numerous times since it began operation in 1958, according to Public Works Director Paul Brazil. Only one of its two sand discharge pipes is currently operational, the town said.

The Port of Palm Beach, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Inland Navigation District have written letters supporting the rehabilitation project, which is estimated to cost $3,075,000.

Frankel’s office was due to select the 10 projects before Saturday, May 1. A representative in Frankel’s office could not be immediately reached for comment on on the program.

Other Possible Funding Sources

The State of Florida will receive funds through the American Rescue Plan and the legislature will consider a program by Gov. Ron DeSantis to create a Resiliency Florida Plan. It would provide grants to help state and local agencies to cover the cost of infrastructure improvements, including those associated with sea level rise and flooding-intensified storm events.

In addition, each state will receive a $100 million minimum payment for the Coronavirus Capital Project Fund to be used for critical projects directly enabling work, education and health monitoring. This will include remote options in response to the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus, including broadband infrastructure, Le Clainche said.

The town will closely monitor these developments as its looks for funding opportunities including grants related to software purchases and improvements to information technology systems, she said.