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McCuskey, Manchin talk COVID relief with West Virginia officials

West Virginia State Auditor JB McCuskey spoke Monday to local and county officials at West Virginia University at Parkersburg about what local governments can do to track federal aid money being brought in to help with infrastructure projects and helping systems impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic through the American Rescue Plan. (Photo by Brett Dunlap)

PARKERSBURG — State officials want to help local communities know how they can legally spend federal aid money to help repair and rebuild from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Officials from around the state gathered Monday at West Virginia University at Parkersburg to listen to presentations on the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and ask questions of West Virginia Auditor JB McCuskey and others about federal money coming locally, how it can be spent and about the processes to keep track of those expenses.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., in a video message to those in attendance talked about the lives lost to the COVID-19 virus, including 2,700 West Virginians as well as the way people have adapted to be able to keep things moving forward and how local officials know the best way to handle local problems in receiving federal aid money through the ARP.

“This was a challenging year that tested every American,” Manchin said. “You know how best to use this funding to protect and improve the lives of those in your communities.”

The state of West Virginia is set to receive the money under the plan with millions going directly to West Virginia’s cities and counties, to be administered by local governments for coronavirus-related expenses and to be used for infrastructure projects, including water, sewer, and broadband.

City and county officials from around the Mid-Ohio Valley and around the state gathered at West Virginia University at Parkersburg on Monday to hear from representatives from U.S. Sen. Manchin, D-W.Va., and West Virginia Auditor JB McCuskey about federal aid dollars that will be coming to local governments for infrastructure projects and other needs and how that spending will be tracked to avoid waste. (Photo by Brett Dunlap)

McCuskey said this is the first time these funds have been delivered directly to local governments. His office is setting up accounting measures to make sure the money is properly spent where it is needed by helping local officials report to the federal government how the money is being used.

“We must avoid the pitfall of fraud, waste and graft,” McCuskey said. “We need to make sure this money is spent efficiently and effectively, legally and transparently.”

The state has discovered it needs to improve broadband access as well as repair and replace aging water and sewer lines, some of which have not been upgraded in 50 to 80 years in some places, he said.

“This money is designed to help all of you to find these problems and fix them quickly because you are the ones who know where the problems are and you can do the designs fast and efficiently,” McCuskey said. “There is a significant amount of reporting that will be done on a fairly regular basis.”

This is being done so people will know how the money was spent and be able to track it so 10 years down the line people aren’t asking what became of that money, he said.

“This way our constituents can hold us accountable,” McCuskey said. “We can prove what we have done.”

Records will show where and when the money was spent, what contractor used it and how long it took, he said. The guidelines are designed for counties and communities to do joint infrastructure projects that expand beyond one of the other’s city/county lines.

“It is not our job to tell you what you can and cannot spend this money on,” McCuskey said. “We don’t want to do that.

“What we want is that when you are spending this money you are doing it confidently.”

Many local governments still have money left over from the first round of COVID aid because they weren’t sure what they could and could not spend it on, he said, adding they wanted to make sure local governments knew how it could be spent legally.

Many officials had questions about how the spending will be tracked and what will be expected of local governments and what exactly the auditor’s office will be doing as the money will be coming directly to the local governments and not allocated through the state.

Wood County Commission President Blair Couch said issues like broadband expansion need to be done in a partnership with the state to get the widest coverage possible as well as work with bordering states as broadband lines will cross into those states and lines could enter West Virginia from other states.

Couch said local governments will also have to work with the state to get additional funding to do certain water/sewer lines from allocations the state can provide from its share of the money coming in which would probably be approved by the state legislature during upcoming interim sessions.

“Maybe they will listen on how to use these funds to benefit everyone,” he said.

McCuskey said the goal is to be able to build things that governments would not otherwise be able to afford.

“It is going to take a unified effort by cities and counties working together,” he said.

Contact Brett Dunlap at bdunlap@newsandsentinel.com

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