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Tri-State townships left out of federal COVID-19 relief plan

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Posted at 7:58 PM, Mar 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-22 20:10:41-04

"The American Rescue Plan" will bring more than a billion dollars in direct relief to governments across the Tri-State, but representatives of one sector of government say they are being left out.

On March 11, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan into law, allocating $350 billion to help local governments with pandemic. But, that doesn't include townships.

The Ohio Township Association and local Congressmen are urging U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to interpret the bill to include funding for townships in Ohio, not just cities and counties.

Marisa Myers, director of government affairs for the Ohio Township Association, said a change to the definition of “non entitlement unit of local government” in the bill has caused confusion; Because the language does not specifically include townships, those small governments are left out.

Now, she said, it's up to the treasury secretary to step in.

"We are unfortunately a little bit at the hands of the treasurer and waiting for their interpretation of the bill. A lot of it wait-and-see,” she said.

Senator Sherrod Brown sent a letter to Yellen last week, asking her to interpret the bill “so that townships receive all the support Congress intended them to receive.”

U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, who like his fellow Republicans voted against the ARP, told the Journal-News he opposed the legislation “for so many reasons," among them that the federal government made decisions that should have been delegated to the states.

“It highlights the problem with Washington, D.C. trying to decide for the whole country, down to the township level ... I mean really think about Ross Township, somebody in Washington, D.C. or sitting at the U.S. Treasury is going to figure out exactly the right amount of money to give Ross Township,” Davidson said. “This is a crazy plan.”

"When you call 911, it's Colerain Township police that come, and Colerain Township fire and EMS when you call, and providing those services is expensive,” said Administrator Geoff Milz, explaining that all of those services have been strained by the pandemic.

That's why he called it “frustrating” that townships may not receive federal help through the bill.

"What it feels like is that a mistake was made,” he said. “It doesn't make any sense."

Springfield Township Administrator Christopher Gilbert said he too thinks this may have been an oversight -- but not one without consequences for small governments.

"To assume that a township doesn't need funding but a city right next door to us -- who, I have neighborhoods bigger than they are -- should receive funding is ridiculous,” Gilbert said.

The pandemic has brought added operational costs to the township, just like at the city and county governments, but he’s hopeful the federal government will make a change.

The Ohio Township Association says Yellen has 60 days from when the bill was enacted to disperse the funding. It is not clear when she might make a decision to include townships.

Myers provided a spreadsheet to the Journal-News of what the estimated funding breakdown was after the measure passed the House. Those preliminary estimates showed West Chester Twp., for example, receiving the largest allocation countywide of either $14.3 million or $11.9 million depending on the actual calculation. It is targeted for no money in the current law.

Under the House bill estimates, Fairfield Twp. would have received between $4.2 to $5 million. Township Administrator Julie Vonderhaar said the funds are “crucial to helping our communities recover from the effects of the pandemic” and if the campaign to add townships is unsuccessful, she hopes the county will step up.

The commissioners have not had an opportunity to discuss how the funds will be spent, but commissioners Don Dixon and T.C. Rogers told the Journal-News they would consider sharing.

“They’re part of the county so I’d say, yeah, everything is on the table,” Dixon said. “We have to look at the overall picture but if they need help it’s part of our job to help.”

Rogers initially said he’d rather return the funds to the feds — as did Warren County Commissioner Dave Young — but his fellow commissioners don’t agree. He said he would favor giving the townships some money.

“There’s some guidelines from the local government funds, that would be a basis,” Rogers said. “We of course would be fair, we don’t play favorites.”

Under the funding plan that is currently the law, Hamilton would get the next-highest allotment, and City Manager Joshua Smith said officials there verified the $36.2 million amount with the state.

“Once there is more clarification regarding the ARP, city council will have a special meeting, and likely future meetings, to review the rules for how any funds can be utilized,” Smith told the Journal-News.

County Administrator Judi Boyko told the commissioners this week they have until the end of 2024 to spend the money and the first of two installments should be deposited into county coffers by mid-May. She and her staff are still combing through the voluminous documents, but this federal funding appears to be less restrictive than the previous CARES Act funding.

Oxford could get $4.3 million if nothing changes, and City Manager Doug Elliott said “it is welcome news.” He said it appears the city can use the money to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on households and businesses, non-profits and other industries; grant premium pay for essential workers, government or to employers dealing with the pandemic; revenue loss due to the pandemic and investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure.

The rules specifically exclude shoring up pensions or offsetting tax cuts.

Middletown’s cut is estimated at $18.2 million, and City Manager Jim Palenick said it will allow the city “to accomplish some truly impactful programs and projects on behalf of our citizens.”

The Journal-News is a media partner of WCPO 9 News.