Times are good, spend our money wisely

Money

By Randy Arrington, publisher

In early 2020, the smart money would have been invested in companies that make mobile, roadside electronic signs.

As COVID-19 relief money began to pour in last year from federal coffers, localities across the country looked for ways to spend those funds, which came with countless restrictions. Mobile, electronic signs qualified, as they could be used to notify the community of various emergency situations or public health restrictions. Rather than face the possibility of returning some of those funds to the feds, jurisdictions desperately looked for acceptable ways to allocate the money — and a large number of small towns across the country purchased electronic, mobile message boards.

Although the message boards do provide another means of disseminating public information, some questioned whether it was the best use of CARES Act funds. In fairness to local decision makers, the motivation was to find ways to use the money (given the restrictions) before the impending deadline — all while fighting a pandemic. And sometimes simply spending money isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Much of the funds went for COVID-related responses, such as retrofitting offices with public health measures in mind, providing hand sanitizing stations for the public, keeping staff supplied with PPE, hazard pay for front line workers, overtime pay, and addressing other direct impacts of the pandemic. However, the funds began to extend beyond basic needs of the crisis, and localities began to find other creative ways to take advantage of the “free money” (which we all know is not really free).

As we all continue to crawl back toward a sense of “normalcy”, localities are looking at another large influx of money flowing into local coffers. After more than a year of seeing millions in federal aid trickle down to the local level through the CARES Act, more than $10 million more is headed to Page County over the next two years through the American Rescue Plan of 2021. The impact could be seen over several years as localities have additional time to actually spend the money, as long as they earmark it for a specific project by the initial deadline. 

This opportunity doesn’t come around often. More often than not, local governments receive unfunded mandates handed down by state and federal lawmakers — regulations passed without the funding to support its implementation, leaving localities to find cuts elsewhere in the budget just so they can adhere to and administer the law. And while there are numerous grant programs and other financial support being allocated routinely, rarely does local government receive a big pool of money with a note that says, within a few parameters, spend this however you want. 

For many years, government officials at all levels have talked about “tightening the belt” and “trimming the fat” and separating “needs from wants” during a seemingly endless series of “lean years.” Every budget season, there is a constant struggle between prioritizing what’s needed in public services, versus discerning what level of tax burden the electorate will tolerate.

And while the ARP funds will not solve all our infrastructure problems or address all our capital needs, financially speaking in terms of public funds, these are booming times.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam issued a press release last week stating that the Commonwealth of Virginia is currently sitting in an unprecedented situation.

“Fueled by a surging economy, federal American Rescue Plan funds, and the largest surplus in Virginia history, we have significant resources available to make transformational investments in this Commonwealth,” Northam stated.

On July 14, the governor’s office reported a historic $2.6 billion surplus on total revenue collections of $8.6 billion. The largest surplus in Virginia’s long history evolved from total revenue collections that soared 14.5 percent over fiscal year 2020. Growth was only forecast at 2.7 percent.

“We expected a strong revenue performance and this surplus is even larger than initially anticipated,” said Secretary of Finance Joe Flores. “We are encouraged that for the fiscal year, payroll withholding and retail sales taxes increased by 6.4 percent signifying that Virginia’s underlying economic foundation is strong.” 

Page County saw its own surplus, approaching $1 million, for the fiscal year recently ended June 30. Page County Public Schools turned in a surplus of nearly $1.5 million. The county has more than $14 million in its reserve fund.

As far down as the economy turned in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is gaining steam in nearly all sectors and is expected to continue to do so — as long as enough workers re-enter the labor force to ease supply pressures and fears of looming inflation.

The cost of a 2×4 and a sheet of plywood will eventually go down…right? Maybe, maybe not for a while. After a DIY boom during the pandemic, housing demands are now increasing. Some contractors say they are getting several calls a day for estimates on renovations and even new home construction before interest rates on borrowing creep up even more. Building should boom, if workers will work.

Travel and entertainment industries are picking up, and will continue to do so — if they can get the workers. Same with retail and many consumer goods (although the sale of pajamas is expected to plummet; but toilet paper should hold its own).

This is an usual time — not as unusual as last year, or at least not in the same way. For all the pain and anxiety we have collectively suffered, some good things are on the horizon. The economy will keep gaining steam as the labor and supply issues begin to work themselves out. Social interaction and activities will begin to lift spirits.

But as we frolic in the idea of “normalcy”, let’s hope our decision makers don’t let a historic opportunity slip by them without making the greatest impact that they can for our collective future.

Millions of dollars will be pumped into our local governments from the federal level…when was the last time that this happened on such a large, widespread scale? The Great Depression and the New Deal? This is an opportunity to address all those things that have been put off until tomorrow. Key repairs, but also replacements. Let’s not grab a new role of duct tape and put on another patch. Let’s take the opportunity that this influx of money offers to actually improve infrastructure and lay a more solid foundation for decades to come.

The Town of Luray is conducting a survey (included in recent water bills) about how to best use this wave of public money. Take the time to fill out the survey. For those elsewhere, call or write your local representatives and send us letters to the editor. Weigh-in on how to best use this “free” money.

This type of opportunity doesn’t come along often. 

Let’s not waste it.

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