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West Virginia receives second half of COVID-19 relief funds

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and Gov. Jim Justice drive through sections of Huntington ravaged by heavy rains and flooding last week. (Photo courtesy of the WV Governor’s Office)

CHARLESTON — State officials announced Monday that West Virginia received the second half of the $1.35 billion American Rescue Plan Act funds, giving West Virginia additional funds to combat COVID-19 and begin work on much-needed drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure projects.

During his first-of-the-week virtual briefings from the State Capitol Building Monday morning, Gov. Jim Justice said the state received another $677 million from the federal government, bringing the total number of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to $1.35 billion. West Virginia received the first of its state allotment last year.

“The second tranche of that has come in now,” Justice said. “We need to be prudent and smart in what we’re doing … We’ve been so upside-down in the decades of the past when we didn’t have any money to turn around. We didn’t know what to do. Now we have it going. With this we’re just going to try to do more and more and more goodness for West Virginia.”

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, passed and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March 2021, provided $350 billion in direct funds for states. The latest in several bills to provide COVID-19 recovery and response funding, ARPA allows states to use their allotments for water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure projects.

During a special session of the West Virginia Legislature in April, lawmakers approved a plan by Justice to provide $250 million in ARPA dollars to the Economic Enhancement Grant Fund through the West Virginia Water Development Authority. The fund will provide matching grants to municipalities for water and sewer infrastructure projects.

“We put up $250 million in a bucket,” Justice said. “Basically, it’s going to be used with matching dollars and everything to be able to do sewer and water projects all across our state. Now, they’ve got to qualify and they’ve got to qualify within the terms and conditions of the ARPA bill in its entirety. So, we’ll have projects that we’ll offer up and we’ll walk them through all the different steps and everything, and then see if we can get them qualified and everything.”

According to guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department, ARPA funds can also be used for management and treatment of stormwater or subsurface drainage water; watershed projects meeting certain Clean Water Act criteria as determined by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency; or reuse/recycling of wastewater, stormwater, or subsurface drainage water.

Stormwater issues have recently been in the headlines after a series of heavy rains hit Cabell, Putnam, and Roane counties earlier in May. Justice declared a state of emergency for those counties, where in some cases more than 4 inches of rain fell in a short amount of time. Officials in Huntington placed the blame on stormwater drainage issues.

“Our terrain, you know, is horizontal basically … water with nowhere to go,” Justice said. “We can get in a situation very, very quickly where all of a sudden we have a flooding issue wherever. We need to constantly be trying to do projects that diminish or eliminate the dangers of flooding, because we don’t have places for people to build or just limitless level properties and everything.”

West Virginia has always been prone to flooding, but the issues were made clear after the June 2016 historic 1,000-year flood events that brought destruction across multiple southern and central West Virginia counties. The state is still struggling to recover from that flood, with millions in federal funds still being spent on recovery and mitigation.

The state was once again labeled a “slow spender” in a May 1 report by the U.S. House and Urban Development, which awarded the state’s RISE West Virginia program $149.9 million in 2018 in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recover funds for counties affected by the 2016 floods. The state still has more than $60 million in unspent CDBG-DR funds.

States receive a “slow spender” designation when they spend less than 10 percent of the monthly pace required to fully use the grant by the grant’s target closeout. As of last December, the RISE program was under state and federal investigation

HUD also awarded the state more than $106 million in a CDBG grant for flood mitigation in those same counties. CDBG-Mitigation funds must be used for projects that increase resilience to flooding, lessen the impact of future natural disasters, reduce the risk of loss of lives and property as well as future suffering and hardship.

The CDBG-Mitigation funds can only be spent in 12 counties affected by the 2016 flood: Clay, Greenbrier, Kanawha, Nicholas, Fayette, Jackson, Lincoln, Monroe, Pocahontas, Roane, Summers, and Webster counties. As of the end of 2021, $65 million for 18 projects had been approved by the state, with applications for projects for the remaining $40 million being accepted this year.

According to a report last October by the First Street Foundation which studies risks from climate change, 17 of the top 20 U.S. counties most at risk from flooding are in Louisiana, Florida, West Virginia, and Kentucky. According to the report, “… there are 128,067 residential properties, 50,284 miles of roads, 11,072 commercial properties, 1,107 infrastructure facilities, and 968 social facilities with operational flood risk today.”

Speaking Monday, Justice said he would like to see flood mitigation projects, such as building more man-made lakes, dams, and other control structures using available funds. But he acknowledged that the permitting processes for new projects through federal agencies, such as the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, slow down the approval of such projects.

“We just need to think big, and so far we’re working on those projects, but we have not gotten to where we can really hit home with them. The permitting process is enormous,” Justice said. “If we have an opportunity here within the dollars that we have to be able to do some of these projects, we need to keep doing them and we need to keep doing more … If we don’t try to find a way to step up through all the vehicles that are available to us today, whether they be matching funds with the federal government or whatever it may be, we need to be able to continue to step up.”

On top of West Virginia’s $1.35 billion in ARPA funds, municipalities and counties in the state received a combined $679 million from ARPA, which they can use independently, partner with a neighbor municipality of county, or leverage their funds with state ARPA funding. Funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is available through its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.

Another avenue of funding could come from surplus tax revenue dollars. The state is expected to end the fiscal year in June with more than $1 billion in tax revenue. Once items put in the back of the new fiscal year 2023 budget get funds through available surplus, the state could likely have more than $250 million in available surplus deposited in the general revenue fund.

A special session of the Legislature is expected for June to determine what to do with the remaining surplus dollars. Plus, a bill passed last year requires legislative approval to spend any federal COVID funding that totals more than $150 million.

“We’re grateful to get another tranche of the ARP money,” Justice said. “The biggest challenge we have, and I think the Legislature and I are doing exactly that: manage it. Run the store the right way. Don’t just throw away stuff on pet projects. Manage it, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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