Idaho cities reject federal coronavirus relief funds

BOISE (AP) — Sixteen Idaho cities have turned down a total of $700,000 in federal coronavirus rescue grants, and one city that accepted $550,000 may have to return it if it doesn’t approve the issuance.

It’s a small portion of the $5.74 billion Idaho received under the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021. However, for some Idaho cities, it can be a significant amount.

Many elected officials in the 16 small towns volunteer or receive token payments. Some officials said they were confused about the allowed use of the money or the terms attached. Others said the costs of managing and tracking the money outweigh the benefits. Some did not appear to have the staff or expertise to evaluate federal guidelines for how the money should be used. A mayor said the city declined because they didn’t want to declare a health emergency and mandate a mask, neither of which is required.

The federal government’s guidance came late, but it allows cities receiving less than $10 million to consider the aid money as lost revenue. That means it can be used just as the city would spend revenue it receives in the course of its general operations.

Most of Idaho’s 200 or so cities have accepted the money, totaling about $232 million. Idaho’s nine largest cities collectively received $124 million directly from the U.S. Treasury, with Boise topping that list with $37 million.

The remaining smaller cities received a combined $108 million distributed by the state. But the 16 cities either refused the money or didn’t respond to letters, emails or calls from state officials.

Of the 16 cities that didn’t take the money, the town of Hansen, in south-central Idaho, of about 1,400 residents, leaves the most on the table with about $276,000. But Mayor Joe Ratto said he wants to double-check now that it’s clear the money could be used for infrastructure projects. The city has an annual budget of about $1 million, he said.

“We could still use it because we still have upgrades to do,” he said. “We can upgrade the water. We can upgrade the sewers. I believe we can upgrade playgrounds. All three things we’re working on right now to level them up.

Alex Adams, administrator of the Idaho Division of Financial Management, said the $700,000 is in the state treasury and the state has asked U.S. tax officials how to return it. It’s not clear if cities that turned down their share could still receive it if they change their minds.

The tiny town of Hope on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho turned down around $21,000. The town has about 100 inhabitants.

“All the bureaucracy, and we’re a small town,” Mayor Bob Breen said. “The added cost of monitoring when the money is handed out. It takes hours and hours. Those are real dollars being paid for it.”

The north Idaho town of Wardner, population 250, lost $38,000.

“My understanding was that you had to declare a mask mandate and a COVID emergency,” Mayor Joe Guardipee said. “We’re a small community, and we didn’t feel that was necessary.”

Guardipee said it wasn’t a political decision and the city accepted a $68,000 grant from the state to improve broadband, which came from federal funds for the coronavirus relief fund.

Spirit Lake in the Idaho Panhandle accepted about $545,000, but the city council has refused to spend it. Mayor Jeremy Cowperthwaite said outsiders who don’t live in the area turned up at city council meetings to argue against using the federal money Cowperthwaite wants to use for much-needed water and sanitation projects.

“As mayor, I would prefer to take the money and use it wherever Spirit Lake needs to use it,” he said. “In my opinion it would be the fiscally responsible way to use it.”

The city has an annual budget of approximately $6.75 million. It needs a new well to meet water needs and two more to meet expected growth. It also needs to buy land to expand its wastewater treatment capacity.

Island Park, a town of about 300 people in East Idaho’s resort area near Yellowstone National Park, lost about $57,000

“We had the attorney check things out, and there wasn’t anything we could use it for,” said city clerk Reeca Marotz.

She said the city doesn’t have a public building authority because Fremont County handles the sewer system and all the water comes from private wells.

Other cities that have rejected the aid money include Acequia ($28,608), Clayton ($1,721), Drummond ($3,442), Hamer ($22,370), Huetter ($24,091), Irwin ($53,129), Onaway ($40,438 ), Parker ($62,593), Placerville ($12,260), Reubens ($13,766), Swan Valley ($52,699) and Warm River ($645).

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