Baker County Commissioners on Wednesday, Oct. 6 approved a general concept for how the county will spend the $3.13 million it will receive over the next two years from the American Rescue Plan Act.
President Joe Biden signed the COVID-19 aid bill into law in March 2021.
Commissioners didn’t discuss specific dollar amounts for any of the projects; those budgeting decisions will be made later. They heard from several county department heads about potential uses for some of the federal money.
Commissioner Mark Bennett said he, along with Christena Cook, the county’s administrative service director, and Heidi Martin, the human resource director, have worked with department heads to put together a list of possible projects.
“We believe that the most appropriate thing is to use these funds for long term benefits and enhancement of livability of the county and it’s our role as commissioners to also put forward a vision and to use these funds,” Bennett said.
He described the federal money as a “once in a lifetime community improvement opportunity,” and a chance to maximize the county’s ability to maintain and enhance the livability of the county and its cities, ensure that the county remains and moves forward in a stable financial position and focus on long term benefits to the county and its residents.
Some of the areas commissioners discussed Wednesday:
Bennett discussed the possibility of expanding broadband internet and cellphone coverage countywide.
“That’s probably our number one project that we’re looking at,” he said.
Bennett said county officials learned last year, when students were taking virtual classes from home due to the pandemic, that there were “large areas where kids just absolutely had no access to the internet whatsoever.”
“It’s starting to be more prevalent in other counties,” Martin said. “I know that there’s been a lot of the smaller counties that are also working on this project and there’s just a lot of funding for these types of projects. It seems to be more of a priority not only at the federal level but also at the state level for these types of projects.”
Roadmaster Nolan Perkins discussed the possibility of paving some gravel roads, such as Brown Road and lower Hunt Mountain Road, both in Baker Valley. The number of homes along those roads has doubled in that area over the past several years.
County officials will also look into possible bridge construction, improvements at county parks, the Mason Dam hydroelectric project, which dates back more than a decade but has not been constructed, and other clean energy projects.
Other possible uses for federal money include a veterans resource center, remodeling at the Health Department building on Fourth Street, and staffing support for the temporary Oregon Trail experience at the Baker Heritage Museum while the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is closed for more than two years for energy-efficiency upgrades.
Sheriff Travis Ash discussed hiring a community resource deputy to focus on community livability issues, homelessness, and at risk youth.
“We have a liaison person that would be tied in to folks that are experiencing houselessness, and we would work with our community partners not just to identify the problems, see if we could come up with some solutions,” Ash said.
Holly Kerns, director of the Baker City/County Planning Department, discussed the recently completed housing needs analysis in partnership with cities in the county.
“The housing needs analysis that was completed last year gave us really good data on where our gaps are, where specifically we are missing housing types by income as far as apartments, single family, duplexes, that type of thing,” Kerns said. “We have really good data on where the needs are and where the demands are projected to be over the next ten years. So the key is trying to begin unlocking some of the challenges that are creating barriers to that housing need development.”
Cities will also receive a share of American Rescue Plan Act money — $2 million for Baker City in two installments, one this year and one next.
City Councilors met for a work session on Sept. 23 to discuss possible uses for the federal money. Like county commissioners, councilors didn’t take any action on approving dollar amounts, but City Manager Jon Cannon presented a list of possible expenditures.
• Administrative services: $150,000. This could include money for new accounting software and training, and computers.
• Fire department: $325,000. Possible uses include new equipment, including self-contained breathing apparatus, and overtime.
• Police department: $200,000. This could include hiring a new officer and buying a new patrol car.
• Water fund: $150,000 to continue the long-term project to replace the pipeline that brings water to town from the city’s watershed in the Elkhorn Mountains.
In other business Wednesday, county commissioners adopted an updated mask policy that follows state regulations. The county’s initial mask policy was approved Sept. 2, 2020.
Commission Chairman Bill Harvey said he opposes the section in the policy that requires county employees to wear a face mask outdoors when six feet of social distancing can’t be maintained.