The decision to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for the Eastlake Grain Elevator development has split Thornton’s city council.
According to the Government Finance Officers Association, “Signed into law on March 11, 2021, The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (“ARPA”) provides $350 billion in additional funding for state and local governments.”
Their website details the eligible uses for the funds, which are “Revenue replacement for the provision of government services to the extent of the reduction in revenue due to the COVID-19 public health emergency, relative to revenues collected in the most recent fiscal year before the emergency, COVID-19 expenditures or negative economic impacts of COVID-19, including assistance to small businesses, households, and hard-hit industries, and economic recovery, premium pay for essential workers, and investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.”
Mayor Jan Kulmann said that the city of Thornton had to divert general fund resources for COVID-related expenses.
“(We made sure) that we maintain services during the pandemic when everything was shut down, including helping our small businesses stay afloat, creating our Alianza business centers, all of these really important things,” she said in an interview.
She mentioned that the council approved the project back in 2019 before COVID hit and now sees the act as an opportunity to replace the general fund and see this project through.
“So when that money got diverted, it’s natural that the ARPA funding that comes in is able to fill that hole that we identified,” she said.
Mayor Pro Tem Jessica Sandgren said she agreed.
“The money was already budgeted for and approved,” she said. “So when we had COVID come in, and all the challenges that came along with that, we postponed all of our projects, and we used that funding for other things that we needed, that were emergency use of the community.”
Sandgren also defended the city funding infrastructure. Due to the city asking the developer to make historical renovations, she doesn’t see an incentive for anyone to build the infrastructure, buy the land and carry out historical renovations.
“We’re asking them again to produce a product for us with specific requirements and it’s costly. The grain elevator has been there for a while, it’s going to need some pretty significant improvements to be safe,” she said. “It wouldn’t matter who the developer was, it would be the same criteria for us.”
During the Jan. 18 planning session meeting regarding the development, City Councilor Kathy Henson voiced hesitancy overusing ARPA funding for the project.
“I have a real concern as to why the city is paying for this and as to why we don’t have updated numbers because this is being talked about being spent out of ARPA funds and we can’t really afford a doubling in this price, we have designated that money for other things,” she said.
City councilor Julia Marvin said she would not support putting more ARPA funding towards infrastructure reimbursements.
“I don’t feel like that’s the intent of the ARPA funds, I know you can use it to backfill your revenue or take care of projects but I don’t think that is the intent we should be using it for,” she said.
In an interview, Marvin said that she sees the ARPA funds as a one-time opportunity to provide immediate economic stabilization for households and businesses and to address and undo some of the severe impacts of the pandemic on residents, especially among low-income communities and people of color.
She doesn’t see funding the Grain Elevator project fulfilling that philosophy. Some examples she would like to see the funds go towards are cleaning up the Thornton Shopping Center, helping fund more broadband internet in the city and addressing the “astronomical” housing prices seen in Thornton.
“I think the biggest thing is that we should be looking at programs that are making larger systemic change, and helping and helping our communities and people who need it,” she said.