Since it was signed into law in March, the entire country has been abuzz about the American Rescue Plan Act. ARPA funds began being distributed in May with funding available through 2026. In addition to the flexibility of the timeline, there is great flexibility also in guidelines for how States, Metropolitan Cities, territories, and smaller local governments, who have been classified as NEUs- non-entitlement units can spend their money.
What is exciting now is that we are starting to hear about decisions being made on city, and county levels regarding how their funds will be spent. Given the wide timetable and all of the flexibility surrounding these funds, it is still not uncommon for many municipalities to still be making decisions regarding their allocations.
Read on for an overview of some ARPA details, scoop on what some places are doing, and some suggestions on how to decide what to do with your share of these funds.
The American Recovery Plan Act was signed on Mar 11, 2021 to “fund vaccinations, provide immediate, direct relief to families bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 crisis, and support struggling communities." The act pumped $350 billion into the coffers of States and local governments. States, all counties, and approximately 1,000 metropolitan cities with populations over 50,000 received their funds directly from the U.S. Treasury. Remaining municipalities have been designated as NEUs, or non-entitlement units, and are receiving $19.53 billion directly from their states.
Over 99% of the funds that were made available in the first year - over $240 billion- were dispersed almost immediately, and by July 31st the Treasury estimated that 45% of that money had already been appropriated or budgeted by states. Eligible local governments were getting their money through the states, which did provide a challenge in some cases.
According to the US Treasury, State and local relief funds can be used to:
The only limitations on the funds are that they cannot be used to pay down or fund pensions, they cannot be applied as matching funds toward any other federal grant, they cannot be used to pay interest or principal on outstanding debt or to pay legal settlements, and they cannot contribute to rainy-day funds. Aside from those four restrictions, State, local, and Tribal governments have been given flexibility and decision making power over the money.
Since tech is what we do, we combed the various guidances for mentions of using the ARPA funds for technology. We found a few, mostly repeating the same info. You can use your ARPA funds on tech advancements for your jurisdiction. As an example, the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund Fact Sheet specifically encourages recipients to use their funds to ‘build their internal capacity to successfully implement economic relief programs, with investments in data analysis, targeted outreach, technology infrastructure, and impact evaluations.’
In October, the Treasury published early reporting highlights and it seems they are tracking allocations in broad categories that follow the suggestions they originally published for usage of the funds. They also highlight some more specific types of social services communities are choosing to focus on with their funds. COVID-19 Response seemed to be the most prolific usage in the early reporting. Many jurisdictions were supplying PPE during public meetings, using funds to ensure proper sanitation and cleaning of government buildings, finding ways to increase access to vaccines and testing, and to assist in contact tracing and reporting.
Job Assistance was another broad area that was called out as having a high degree of funding usage. Under this category states, cities, and counties are using their ARPA allocations to fund unemployment assistance, workforce development, and to remove barriers and provide job assistance programs for youth and adults. Related to private sector job assistance programs, rehiring public sector staff, and preventing the layoff of public sector personnel was also a common early usage of funds. An October report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics showed State, local, and Tribal government employment had fallen by over 1 million jobs in April compared to pre-pandemic levels, but had regained almost 20% of that number as of September. Support for Small Businesses, Broadband Infrastructure, and Childcare are three other categories mentioned that certainly will also impact Job Assistance and have a cascading effect on many other areas for the communities who have allocated funds here. Providing childcare at reduced, or no cost gives working parents an opportunity to keep working, especially while schools have been shut down. Broadband infrastructure funds were used to help provide internet access equity and provide connectivity to many. This was vital for providing remote access to public resources like schooling and healthcare that everyone needs. Support that some small businesses received saved the jobs. Additionally, many communities were offering training, programs, and guidance for small businesses on how to use technology to help mitigate loss of revenue.
Education is another category where ARPA funds are being used by many communities. As I alluded to above, we saw many K-12 schools close their doors and take their classes online due to COVID-19 related lockdowns, but this meant that they needed to ensure that students would have the resources necessary to engage online. In addition, communities are using funding for a variety of educational programs from early literacy to adult basic education.
Mental/Behavioral Health and Housing both received funding in a number of communities. A wide range of Mental and Behavioral Health issues are being targeted by ARPA funds including pandemic related trauma, substance abuse related issues, and mental health services for children. Housing related investments that were reported addressed building and maintaining affordable housing units, rapid re-housing programs, and transitional services to support unhoused populations.
We were especially interested in one of the categories: Crime and Violence Prevention. According to the Treasury, a “A number of recipients are making investments in community violence interventions through tools other than incarceration" as well the creation of trauma response and victims advocacy programs. While many of these initiatives overlap with Behavioral Health initiatives, they are no doubt a great use of ARPA funds.
In all of these categories, one common denominator emerged: Technology. There is technology being invested in and adopted across all of the categories and is integral to just about every solution communities are implementing.
The pandemic very effectively highlighted how necessary it is for Government services to meet citizens where they are- and where they are, is online- and more specifically: on their smartphones. ARPA rules site “modernization of cybersecurity, including hardware, software, and protection of critical infrastructure; health services; environmental remediation; school or educational services; and the provision of police, fire, and other public safety services," as recommended and allowable uses for American Rescue Plan Act money.
Many state and local school districts are investing in tech tools including hardware, software, and connectivity. The goals school districts are looking to achieve via technology upgrades are many and varied. Some hope their investments will enhance interaction between students and instructors, others work to address inequalities in access, and some are looking to educational software that will directly assist instruction, and some have cybersecurity concerns they hope to address.
Outside of education, many localities are looking to technology to provide remote connections to resources. Portsmouth, Rhode Island, is investing in an upgraded audio-visual system to livestream its town hall meetings. Franklin County in Ohio is using funds to offer more connectivity to seniors who are often more isolated, even without the complications of a global pandemic. Telehealth is literally vital to this population under these circumstances. Plainfield, Connecticut is installing software that will act as a notification and supervisory control system to help monitor their wastewater system.
The Pandemic took a tough toll on courts who are now feeling the strain of an enormous case backlog. Add to that an increased urgency around building safety- especially regarding new and ever-changing capacity rules, mask guidelines and restrictions, sanitation, and health related closures. These have become urgent calls to action for adding important tech tools to a court's arsenal.
With the historic backlog situation, courts cannot aford the wasted time that goes into dealing with FTA. Courts cannot also afford the literal loss in revenue from FTP, or failure to pay. Courts need to be able to offer clinets a fully remote way to:
Others in the justice feild need technology that enables more remote functionality in their jobs as well. Supervisors need to be able to provide remote check-ins to probationary clients, and offer safe and secure, two-way digital comunication. Technology can allow for geolocation, and exculsion and inclusion zones for clients. Professionals in behavioral health can use technology to efficiently plan randomized drug testing, and alert clients of appointments. They can use technology to inform and remind clients about these obligations.
While the pandemic highlighted the need to offer remote accessibilty to court services, the technology that helps courts address these accute needs also help courts solve age old problems. FTA and FTP are not new and are not pandemic related. Computerized check in systems allow court clerks to take control of their time and workflow. Being able to send and receive signed court documents quickly and remotely can expedite shorten processes that once took weeks and months down to days. The rewards reeped from implementing these systems now when the need is so desperate will continue on long after the pandemic has finaly wound down, whenever that may be.
We are, of course, thrilled to see courts all over the US, and on every level of the judiciary, investing in these solutions. And we are likelwise thrilled to offer one tool that solves for all of these needs.
Arguably, one of the greatest things about the American Rescue Plan is its flexibility. The range and diversity of the needs of American cities, states, counties, and Tribal communities is vast. ARPA recognizes that there is not a one size fits all solution to the issues that Americans are facing right now. It understands that what one community desperately needs right now might make no sense in another community, and it gives the individual communities the leeway to make important decisions locally.
While this leads to a natural reluctance to make suggestions and recommendations on how funds should be used, certain principles apply across the diverse landscape of community needs and funding use cases.
Any time you are doing problem solving, which is essentially what this money is for, you want to start with defining the problem. So it seems obvious to start with determining what the most important priorities are within your community. Having a broad window for spending the funds has provided the opportunity to do this the right way, and many communities are taking advantage of it. These communities are using funds to preliminarily connect with community members and advocacy groups, to conduct surveys and virtual meetings to really listen, and to hear the needs and the recommended solutions within their community. In many places, remote meetings and information sessions have become a great equalizer, giving a voice to those for whom accessibility may have always been an issue, or for smaller advocacy groups who are being given a platform level with those who have historically held larger lobbying powers. Every community is a diverse collective of constituents and there is money here to divide amongst numerous issues, and to align stakeholder goals across large initiatives.
Once a community has determined their priorities in terms of the areas to which they will apply their funds, they will want to consider balancing their short term needs in those areas with long term solutions that can affect continued prosperity. Long term investments can address those disparities exacerbated by the pandemic and those that communities have long struggled with. They can enhance economic opportunities and make communities stronger coming out of the pandemic and into the future.
In terms of long-term tech strategies most experts point to four main themes: migrating to cloud-based services and storage, enhancing cyber-security, last-mile broadband, and, once in the cloud, cloud based applications that enhance accessibility and improve civic engagement. These cloud-based services help governments, small and large, to collect and use data, work remotely, reach more residents than ever before, and be more effective and efficient in whatever they are tasked with.
Governments were forced by the pandemic to adapt their services to reach the public remotely. Moving toward digital tools to help every citizen access government services provides access to those challenged to engage in person. There is legitimate truth behind Apple’s buzz worthy, viral, (and trademarked) phrase “There is an app for that.™" There are web and mobile friendly solutions out there for every government sector that provides that accessibility simply, securely, and with elegant user experience interfaces.
Investing in long term technological solutions to common government issues, and applying web and mobile access to government services and departments is the long term usage for ARPA funds that makes sense. We all have an opportunity with these funds to not just get back to pre-COVID modes, but gives us a chance to truly level up. We can use these funds to build on opportunities to not just get back, but to go beyond.