Mayors See ‘Once-in-a-Lifetime’ Opportunity For W.Va.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, essential services in cities across West Virginia have continued to operate. Police officers have continued to provide public safety. Firefighters have continued to protect life and property from fires. And Public Works employees have continued to patch potholes and keep our communities clean.
All mayors across West Virginia have faced similar hurdles throughout the pandemic — maintaining essential services for our communities, ensuring our first responders could safely continue their life-saving work, managing budget deficits while future revenue was in doubt, postponing major investment projects, identifying the best way to help our small businesses struggling to adapt to COVID protocols, and much more.
With Sen. Joe Manchin’s leadership, the U.S. Congress passed one of the nation’s largest pieces of spending legislation — the American Rescue Plan — which is centered around economic recovery, with key focuses on infrastructure and social safety net projects. The ARP will bring more than $4 billion to West Virginia. And for the first time in our lifetime, mayors, in coordination with our city councils and citizens, will have the opportunity to determine the most pressing needs in our cities and towns.
The ARP will provide the ability for municipalities, many of which are facing budgetary deficits due to COVID-19, to recover financially. It will also provide the ability to fund vital infrastructure investments such as water, sewer and broadband.
The city of Wheeling moved quickly in response to the onset of COVID-19 to maintain city services while keeping a balanced budget. This included steps such as facilitating remote working by city employees, enabling contactless payment of water bills and other municipal fees, easing regulations for outdoor dining and curbside pickup, and targeted tax relief for small retail businesses. Despite this balanced budget, however, Wheeling, like many West Virginia cities, is confronting an aging infrastructure system in need of major upgrades. Funding from the city’s ARP allocation, which is estimated at $29.51 million, will provide a critical pathway to do just that.
Moreover, Mayor Glenn Elliott and Wheeling City Council are now structuring a process for local businesses to receive grants using ARP funding for critical investments and upgrades consistent with ARP guidelines.
The funding from the ARP will go a long way in moving Wheeling forward and providing the city the ability to take on projects that would be years in the making if not for this opportunity.
The city of Charleston experienced challenges similar to those of Wheeling. The police, fire and refuse departments, which always work diligently to serve their community, faced new, COVID-related complications as part of their daily workload. City staff was forced to find ways to work remotely — which presented new barriers to maintaining efficient operations.
Despite the challenges, Charleston was able to maintain its obligations during this global pandemic and ensure the continuation of operations — albeit in a different format for some departments. The city of Charleston is expected to receive an estimated $36.8 million ARP allocation.
Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin wants to prioritize not only economic recovery but invest in the city’s future and create a healthy and safe place for families. The mayor created the American Rescue Plan Act Advisory Committee, composed of city council members, and hosted four public listening sessions to receive citizen input on how to best use the funds.
The city of Huntington’s experience with the COVID-19 pandemic has mirrored other cities across the country and in West Virginia. Huntington’s city government is proud that operations did not close for a minute or a day during the pandemic. The city managed to maintain fiscal stability and was able to provide assistance to city retailers and restaurants by eliminating their business and occupation taxes. Mayor Steve Williams sees the American Rescue Plan as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to respond, rethink and reimagine how we can transform our future for the next 50 years.
The city of Huntington will bring to reality the foundation it has established during the past eight years to move forward with a robust broadband/smart city network and storm water flooding abatement. It also will address environmental issues necessary to advance economic development initiatives from one end of the city to the other and will build an innovative housing initiative to make the city attractive to new residents. Huntington’s guiding principles with the $40.63 million it will from the American Recue Plan are as follows:
n For every dollar of ARP proceeds invested, an additional $5 of investment must be established.
n ARP proceeds must be used for one-time expenditures rather than expenditures that require ongoing appropriations.
n Accountability and transparency must drive the expenditure of every penny appropriated.
Sen. Manchin’s support of the American Rescue Plan was essential to its passage. Cities and towns across our state will benefit from the $677 million coming to our municipalities as a result of the American Rescue Plan. While Sen. Manchin has played a critical role in getting us to this point, it is now up to us — as mayors — to effectively, prudently and transparently spend this funding in a way our children and grandchildren reap the benefits. While the American Rescue Plan may mean replacing aging infrastructure in some places, addressing food insecurity in others or extending the reach of broadband to underserved areas — it also means opportunity and progress for all of West Virginia.
Glenn Elliott serves as the mayor of Wheeling; Amy Shuler Goodwin, a Wheeling native, is mayor of Charleston; and Steve Williams is mayor of Huntington.