Wilson Municipal Building

Partnerships Help Local Governments Navigate Pandemic Recovery
The NC League of Municipalities, NCACC, and Councils of Government help towns make the most of their American Rescue Plan funds

Author: Jessie Holmes

COVID-19 presented towns, cities, and counties with a historic challenge: continue to deliver vital government services while responding to an evolving public health crisis. Costs rose as local governments took measures to protect their employees and their communities, while tax revenue fell for some. 

Congress provided a lifeline in March 2021 with the passage of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). It included $350 billion in State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to help governments address the economic effects of COVID-19 and build more resilient, equitable communities. 

But this opportunity also came with a complex landscape of U.S. Treasury rules and time-consuming reporting requirements – often with fewer employees to handle them due to a public-sector labor shortage. To support local governments, North Carolina legislators provided a total of $30 million in grants from the State’s ARPA funds to the North Carolina League of Municipalities, the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, and the North Carolina Association of Regional Councils of Government, which represents sixteen individual Councils of Government (COGs).

These long-time organizations had the experience and relationships needed to partner with local governments to strategically plan for and spend COVID-19 relief funds, leading to better outcomes for communities and the people who live there.

Partnering for Success

Biscoe Water Tower
The Town of Biscoe received administrative support from the Piedmont Triad Regional Council in spending its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

Biscoe is a small town with big hearts, nestled at the edge of the Uwharrie National Forest just south of Asheboro. This community of less than 2,000 does not have a traditional downtown or business district in which to gather. Instead, you’ll find people socializing, exercising, and playing at Deaton-Monroe Park, which also hosts the weekly farmer’s market and other town-sponsored events. Soon, this important community resource will undergo a major renovation with the help of $546,000 in ARPA funds.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done because it gets a lot of use,” says Town Manager Brandon Holland. “We’re looking forward to doing some renovations and bringing life back to it.” 

Holland and his staff were prepared for an in-depth planning process, like soliciting public feedback and developing a master plan. But what they didn’t have was the time, and sometimes expertise, to interpret and carry out the necessary federal requirements attached to ARPA funds. They partnered with their local COG, the Piedmont Triad Regional Council.

“The fact that the PTRC was able to offer administrative support let us keep our foot on the gas here locally,” says Holland. 

The PTRC assisted as needed, helping file federal reports or navigate U.S. Treasury’s online portal, and continues to offer guidance while the project progresses. Its support has allowed Holland’s team to focus on making the most of their town’s funds, which includes securing a matching grant worth $500,000 from the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. When construction is complete the park will have new basketball courts, pickleball courts, improved walking trails, a splash pad, updated bathrooms, and better accessibility in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

“We wouldn’t have been able to do it without them,” says Holland.

Regional Councils of Government Provide Technical Support 

Similar experiences are playing out across North Carolina, saving communities time and money. For example, while some local governments such as Biscoe already had a vision for spending ARPA funds, others turned to their local COG for the best strategy. 

“We have created over 200 spending plans for local governments to roadmap how they want to spend those funds,” says Robert Hiett, who serves as both Chairman of the North Carolina Association of Regional Councils of Government, and Executive Director of the Upper Coastal Plain COG based in Wilson.

Hiett says they’ve also helped local governments to secure an additional $83.5 million in grants from other sources to maximize the number and scope of projects communities can tackle, and COGs promote information sharing through meetings, newsletters, and resource databases. 

While COGs have served local governments for decades, the ARPA funds they received from the State have allowed them to expand that assistance at a time of historically heightened demand, and tailor it to each region.

“We’d like to thank our state and federal elected officials for allowing us to be an assisting organization with our state’s pandemic response, and to be part of the statewide solution,” says Hiett.

NCACC Launches Strategic Member Services Program

People in meeting
The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners used its $10 million ARPA grant to build its Strategic Member Services division, which provides expertise and hands-on technical assistance within county offices.

The NCACC used its $10 million grant to launch its Strategic Member Services program, or SMS. This team includes a core group of subject matter experts based at the main office in Raleigh, and about a dozen recent master’s-level graduates who are placed directly in county government offices. This latter group, known as Strategic Project Coordinators, works alongside county administration to develop spending plans for American Rescue Plan funds. 

“When this money came down from the federal government there was a lot of confusion about what you can spend that money on, how that can be of assistance to communities,” says Andreu Sutterby, a former Strategic Project Coordinator for Moore and Orange County. “We help them through that process so that money can get to the places it’s needed most.”

Sutterby is now dedicated full time to ARPA as the NCACC’s new ARPA Policy Research Coordinator, supporting county commissioners and county staff throughout the state. Yet another position funded by the organization’s ARPA grant.

SMS also creates a much-needed talent pipeline for local governments. Leia Gearhart’s contributions as a Strategic Project Coordinator in Randolph County proved so vital, they hired her permanently.

“She brings something new to the County, some expertise we hadn’t had,” says Randolph County Commissioner Darrell Frye. “We’re glad to have her with us as an employee now.”

Strategic Project Coordinators gain the skills and experience to begin a successful career in local government, eventually becoming the next county managers or department heads. This is especially important as the public sector struggles to regain the jobs it lost during the pandemic, according to the North Carolina Pandemic Recovery Office’s July 2023 Economic Update

NCACC Executive Director Kevin Leonard says workforce development was one of the many factors they considered in developing the SMS program, along with the technical assistance their experienced staff provides to all 100 counties.

“We’re finding it’s really needed by our membership, this level of member service,” says NCACC Executive Director Kevin Leonard. “And we’ve had this great opportunity to explore this new endeavor due to ARPA funds.” 

NC League of Municipalities Addresses COVID-19 and Accounting Challenges 

From the largest cities to the smallest towns, nearly every municipal government in the state has partnered with the North Carolina League of Municipalities for some level of assistance in planning for, spending, or reporting on a combined $1.3 billion in Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. 

While the League already had a robust staff of legislative and finance experts, the $10 million grant provided by the State helped it create a new team dedicated to ARPA administration, to more effectively meet the increased needs of its members.

“We are helping them make transformational investments that were envisioned by the American Rescue Plan and use those funds in a way that is going to benefit their citizens hopefully for years to come,” says Chris Nida, Director of Technical Assistance for Cities.

The support this team provides varies from one-on-one technical assistance, to leading group webinars and publishing case studies. The League also hosted the highly attended American Rescue Plan Expert Tour in 2022. It partnered with NCPRO and the North Carolina Association of Regional Councils of Government to hold four day-long events across the state, presenting expert panels and help desks, along with an opportunity for members to meet and share ideas.

Lewisville sign
The Town of Lewisville is a member of the North Carolina League of Municipalities and one of its many ARPA success stories.

Lewisville is one of the many ARPA success stories among the League’s membership. This residential community of nearly 14,000 people, outside Winston-Salem, received $4 million in Local Fiscal Recovery Funds. So far, the Town has allocated about half of its grant as general fund revenue replacement to complete infrastructure projects including sidewalks and roadways, as well as installing EV charging stations in the town square. Lewisville Mayor Mike Horn also sits on the League’s Board of Directors, giving him a broad perspective of how the organization is helping North Carolina’s towns. 

“The resources that the League provides, particularly to smaller towns and communities, is that they bring a complete understanding of how ARPA money needs to be taken into the community, how it needs to be allocated, how it needs to be tracked, and how it can be moved through a town’s budget to benefit its residents,” says Mayor Horn. 

Smaller towns and communities will also benefit from a second ARPA-funded initiative at the League, which will use a $15 million grant to help municipalities install and implement new accounting software – bridging a long-time technology gap exposed by the pandemic.

“One of the challenges that we've seen is keeping up with the financial regulations, keeping up with their statutory financial duties, making sure their budgets are passed, their books are up to date, their audits are turned in on time,” says Nida. “They're not the most visible part of city operations, but they're ensuring that our cities are financially stable and resilient.”

The League is partnering with a software provider to help towns transition to a more effective and secure accounting system for which the League will also provide training and ongoing technical support. Nida describes the upgrade as “holistic” in that it will help local governments manage their COVID-19 relief funds and all aspects of their finances moving forward so they emerge from the pandemic more financially resilient.

Supporting the Organizations Who Support our Communities

Unlocking the full potential of American Rescue Plan funds requires additional time and expertise that many communities, especially those with smaller populations, do not have the capacity to provide. These new strategies and resources will also better position local governments to take advantage of other federal grants, from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to the Inflation Reduction Act.

“This is a moment in time that we will look back on,” says NCACC’s Executive Director Kevin Leonard. “This investment and this infrastructure, whether it’s water and sewer, or broadband, is really going to set North Carolina on a path to a much greater future than we would have been previously.”

Together, the Regional Councils of Government, North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, and North Carolina League of Municipalities fill an essential role that contributes to the long-term prosperity of all North Carolinians, by building stronger, more adaptable communities.

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