County hears arguments from ARPA consulting firms

Lowndes County supervisors heard from four companies on Monday that may be vying to provide counseling services to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The services offered by the companies ranged from help with documentation and compliance to the full management of the county’s ARPA program.

Costs quoted ranged from 2 to 7 percent of the county’s $ 11.3 million ARPA allocation or hourly rates of $ 200 to $ 300 for “a la carte” services.

Representatives of Butler Snow, Horne LLP; The Capitol group; and local government solutions and strategies presented to council on Monday “for information purposes,” county administrator Jay Fisher said. In order to be considered for hiring, they must respond to a formal request for proposals that the county is expected to publish later this year.

“I think it was good for us today to hear from the people who provide these services,” Chairman of the Board Trip Hairston told The Dispatch after the meeting. “One concern I have after hearing the presentations is the wide variation in costs for the services. What if we paid the hourly rate, would we get the same level of dedication from the consulting firm? “

ARPA allows counties to spend funds on COVID-19 assistance programs; wage premium for essential workers; water, sewer or broadband projects; or to replace the loss of income caused by the pandemic. The county has already received half of its ARPA funding, with the other half coming next year. Everything must be spent on qualifying uses by the end of 2026.

Businesses
Butler Snow, Horne, and The Capitol Group all offered their services with flexibility based on county needs – from simple compliance and reporting assistance to “A-to-Z” programming.

Parker Berry, along with Butler Snow, said his company works with a handful of counties and municipalities, and provides general advice to the Mississippi Municipal League. So far, with ARPA, the majority of their assistance has been helping clients determine which projects are eligible for ARPA, and then helping them navigate through compliance documents, reporting requirements, and contracts with third parties receiving funds from clients.

Butler Snow is working on an hourly rate, which Berry said would average $ 300 an hour.

Berry and Troy Johnson, also of the cabinet, noted “a lot of gray areas” in the general and changing ARPA guidelines. At this, District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders asked if Butler Snow misinformed the county whether the company would be responsible for reimbursing badly spent ARPA funds.

“Obviously our opinion would only be our opinion of what is eligible,” Berry said. “It’s always up to you to make that decision. … This is the risk that runs with any form of federal (fund).

Johnson said that even when clients ignore the company’s advice, it will still work to put them in the “best defensible position.”
However, he seemed particularly cautious about using ARPA for employee compensation, as some cities and counties have decided.
“The biggest problem I’ve seen people ask is’ who can you spend the money on? “With employees and things like that,” Johnson said. “There are going to be times with me where I say to people, ‘No. I wouldn’t do that. Sometimes they listen. Sometimes they don’t.

Horne helps manage $ 90 billion in federal funds across the country, including $ 25 billion in COVID relief funds, Representative Timothy Smith said on the board. This includes Coronavirus Assistance, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) and ARPA for Tennessee, ARPA for Maine, Emergency Rental Assistance in Texas and California, as well as the help to homeowners in Arkansas and Louisiana.

Smith said the firm was working specifically to provide “audit-proof” advice.

“We try to think of everything through the lens of a listener,” he said.

Horne charges a 2-5% fee, depending on the scope of service, or an hourly fee of $ 220 on average.

The Capitol Group offers a similar range of services and charges up to 7% depending on the scope, said Representative Haley Martin. It also gives the option of an hourly rate “comparable to what other companies have presented”.

Andrew Smith, of Greenville-based Local Government Solutions and Strategies, said his group was a “full-service” consultant who managed everything for a fee of 2%. This would include leading community meetings in the county’s five districts and forming the plan based on a mix of what supervisors and the public wanted to see.

Andrew Smith said his company works with federal funds in eight states, ranging from housing and urban development to block grants for community development.

Developing a plan
After the presentations, District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks urged his colleagues to develop an ARPA spending plan that would guide both the bidding for consulting firms and the scope of work that a company would be supposed to perform.

“I don’t want a consultant telling us what to do,” Brooks said. “I want us to tell them what we want to do, and they tell us how we can do it.”

Fisher said the county would not be eligible for the lost tax revenue from COVID, so it would have to prioritize projects in the other three categories – premium, COVID relief, and water / sewer / broadband.

Sanders asked Fisher if the county could use ARPA funds to reimburse its coffers for additional paid sick leave granted to employees for COVID-related reasons. Fisher said it was questionable.

I haven’t seen anything in the tips that indicates it’s possible, ”said Fisher.

Supervisors agreed to each submit a priority list for ARPA spending to Fisher in time for him to compile and present those priorities on October 15. Brooks also suggested that the county consider hiring a specific administrator to work directly with the consultant and oversee ARPA so that Fisher and the county’s chief financial officer, Lloyd Price, are not “overburdened.”

Hairston, after the meeting, said he would be open to this, especially when considering possibilities such as setting up subsidy programs for the county’s rural water services.

“I would definitely watch it for sure,” Hairston said. “It might not be a bad idea.”

EMCC Board of Directors finalists; citizen honored for his rescue
Supervisors selected three finalists from 10 finalists for county vacancies on the East Mississippi Community College board of trustees.

Paccar CEO Andrew Appel, cardiac surgeon Richard Eubanks Jr. and Columbus Mayor Keith Gaskin will all be invited to appear before supervisors on October 15. Two will be selected to the EMCC Board of Directors.

These appointees will replace Joe Max Higgins and Greg Stewart, who both resigned with unfinished terms. EMCC has campuses in Scooba and Mayhew, as well as the Communiversity Vocational Training Center on Highway 82 in County Lowndes and the Lion Hills Center in Columbus.

The counties of Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay, Noxubee, Kemper and Lauderdale each appoint two directors to the board.

In other cases, supervisors have honored Chad Surinis with a resolution for the rescue of a woman in Steens recently after she crashed her car into a pond.

Zack Plair is the editor of The Dispatch.

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