Rochester OKs $70,000 in COVID funding for free pass to city pools

The spending spree bound to break out with the next round of federal pandemic funding for local governments has officially kicked off in Rochester. It’s a tall order determining how to dole out the $17.5 million windfall the southern Minnesota city will receive over the next two years from the American Rescue Plan Act. So many millions, so little time.

But the city council has gotten a good head start by unanimously approving $70,000 off the top to give residents a free pass to municipal swimming pools this summer. The plan has been in the works for weeks, according to the Med City Beat.

In a unanimous vote, the council approved the use of $70,000 from the city’s $17 million American Rescue Plan allotment to fund free admission at the Silver Lake and Soldiers Field pools. Council Member Nick Campion, who originally brought the idea to the council two weeks ago, said the action is meant to give families a free outlet to have fun outside, after the pools were shuttered throughout the pandemic.

“I think this is just a fantastic policy change for the city, for a year where so many families have gone through so much hardship, both with school changes and the pandemic,” said Campion. “Having this as something to come back to, and in a small way, celebrate the reopening of the pools… I think that’s really exciting.”  

That’s merely a drop in the bucket compared to the next expenditure of ARP funds also green lit by city councilors. The city will waive an estimated $636,000 in annual liquor license fees billed to local bars and restaurants hard-hit by Gov. Tim Walz’s pandemic shutdowns and restrictions. To offset the lost revenue, the Post Bulletin notes, the city will pocket $636,000 of ARP funding.

“I was advocating for lowering the fees, and I love this plan,” council member Mark Bransford said, noting it will help the hospitality industry recover.

“It’s at least something for them,” he added.

City Administrator Alison Zelms said the move will help the businesses that faced a variety of shutdowns and restrictions during the COVID-p9 pandemic.

“It was a way to kind of deliver for the impacted parties,” she said.

The federal funding comes with strings attached that prohibit delivering a property tax cut for the “impacted parties” known as taxpayers. But the city council appeared willing to get creative enough to explore other ways of accomplishing the same objective.

Parrish said using a portion of the nearly $17.5 million the city will receive from the federal American Rescue Plan Act will help reduce potential impacts to property owners.

Under the preliminary proposal reviewed Monday, the projected 8.23% increase would be reduced with nearly $2.9 million, which could reduce the levy increase by 3.5 percentage points. It would reduce the potential levy increase to 4.73%.

Future budgets would use other federal funds to continue to buy down levy increases based on anticipated city needs while also reducing budget challenges.

Overall, the current round of ARP Act funding allows more leeway than the first round of CARES Act funding in the way cities spend it. In the coming weeks and months, the process of divvying up millions of dollars in pandemic relief funding that’s underway in Rochester will be repeated in virtually every city in Minnesota. Stay tuned.