County OKs leftover COVID-relief funds for lobbyist, grant writer, iPads

COVID-19 continues to be the gift that keeps on giving for local governments. Nearly half of the $350 billion allotted to cities, counties and states for COVID-related spending under the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021 remains to be spent. The more time that elapses post COVID, the more local elected officials across Minnesota feel the heat to spend their share of pandemic relief funding or risk losing it.

In Kandiyohi County that means figuring out how to spend $1,255,000 of $8.3 million still on hand, sooner rather than later. A nervous Kandiyohi County Administrator Kelsey Baker pressed the issue in the West Central Tribune account of the latest county board meeting in Willmar.

The county has until Dec. 31, 2024, to allocate the money and December 2026 to actually spend it. There is a push for American Rescue Plan Act recipients to allocate the funds sooner rather than later, just in case the federal government decides to make some changes to the programs.

There have already been clawbacks of unappropriated American Rescue Plan Act dollars at the federal level, though the money already handed down to states, counties and cities has not been part of those efforts.

“We don’t want to push it too far,” Baker said.

It’s the same message for local governments all over the state. Use it or lose it. For starters, Kandiyohi commissioners allocated a good chuck of the remaining funds, $500,000, to further bolster the western Minnesota county’s already upgraded online security system.

County IT director Scott Hovland said cybersecurity remains a top priority. While steps have been taken to firm up the county’s security, there are still thousands of attempted attacks from bad actors.

“We are still getting someone knocking on the door frequently,” Hovland said. “We have some work to do.”

Getting the right systems and programs into place to make the county’s digital footprint as secure as possible won’t be cheap, but it is necessary. There have been many instances of public institutions, including governments, being hacked into by cybercriminals. Those attacks can cause a lot of damage and upheaval.

The remaining funds went to a hodge-podge of items and projects on a wish list compiled by the county staff and administrator. Among the most notable:

Grant writer–$35,000

Federal lobbyist–$60,000

iPads for commissioners and video interpretation–$12,000

Park study–$50,000

Hydro mulcher–$20,000

Yet one proposed expenditure on the list of recommendations went too far for a board member. It was $50,000 for two robotic vacuums that Commissioner Dave Anderson thought could be better spent on offsetting the county’s ever higher payroll.

“I guess I have a hard time with $50,000 for robotic vacuum cleaners that could be used for wages,” Anderson said. “That was kind of my thought, then, there are some things in here that might be used better for wages, instead of, I call them toys.”

At this point, local governments technically have another year to allocate COVID-relief funds. Yet there’s always a chance the windfall could be clawed back. Unspent pandemic funds were on the table earlier this year as a bargaining chip in negotiations over raising the debt ceiling.