Norristown, Montgomery County grapple with COVID-19 small business award – The Times Herald

NORRISTOWN — Some discontent has been brewing in the county seat as Norristown officials continue to decide how to best allocate federal COVID-19 relief dollars.

It’s considered one-time money, but proceeds from the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package must be allocated by 2024 and spent by 2026.

While much of the Municipality of Norristown’s $20.2 million has been designated for a variety of projects ranging from infrastructure to development, a separate $2 million award from Montgomery County’s American Rescue Plan Act funds for small business assistance has yet to be deposited into the local government’s coffers.

The subject was broached the past two times council members and municipal leadership met, but they’ve  come up empty.

“That’s really the fight we’re having right now with the county about that $2 million that we’ve been awarded,” said Municipal Administrator Crandall Jones during a July 18 council meeting.

“We’ve been having that fight because unfortunately their thought was that most of this money would be [for] giving technical assistance advice, and what we’ve come back and said, no, folks need capital investment to make projects happen. The advice part they’ll get,” Jones said.

Different contexts

According to Montgomery County Recovery Officer Tom Bonner, the funds are supposed to further “expand” the Norristown Small Business Assistance Center at 268 E. Main St. It was “documented as a planned project” in August 2022 when funds were appropriated.

Jones recalled previous conversations with county officials during the July work session where a possible disconnect was identified. Jones spoke of how organizers expressed concerns of how their proposal “deviates from how the original proposal was written.”

“My response was that well may be true, but this is actually facts on the ground, and if you guys are actually interested in helping small businesses in Norristown with what they actually need to be able to accomplish being viable, then this is the plan, not just advice,” Jones said. “So that’s where we’ve been butting heads.”

While the project’s implementation officially began in 2022’s fourth quarter, Bonner said, funds hadn’t yet been distributed. Instead, he maintained county and municipal officials have been meeting regularly “to define the project’s scope.”

Small businesses pitch

Representatives from a fitness center, theatre company and library presented pitches for grant funding geared toward small businesses during a council session earlier this spring. Council President Thomas Lepera shared his thoughts on the matter in July.

“The library is something that the county is doing with their ARPA funds, and I just don’t feel the need to fund the county project with ARPA funds,” he said during the July 18 work session. “They certainly haven’t played nice with us when it comes to their ARPA funds, talking about (the) small business grant, the runaround about the community center. So the library is a no for me.”

As the county’s recovery officer, Bonner is tasked with ensuring that funding will be allocated in compliance with federal regulations. In this instance, it starts with an open dialogue.

“Does it mean we’re going to allocate more money for instance to Small Business Grant improvement? Does it mean it’s facade improvement? Does it mean it’s increasing capacity of the Small Business Assistance Center that Norristown borough government runs,” Bonner said. “All of those things are viable uses of this fund, of this particular allocation.”

Bonner stressed the importance of finding common ground to use the monies in ways deemed appropriate.

“If we’re expanding the Small Business Assistance Center, and … whether that’s capital improvements, or programatic costs, or probably a combination of both … that’s our intent,” he said. “The only thing we would have an issue with is if it’s outside the bounds of what we said we were going to do and/or it’s not in compliance with federal rules.”

Watching the clock

While there is still some time before the Dec. 31, 2024 obligation deadline, elected officials in Norristown are eager to get the funds in hand.

“As we all know, the money has to be allocated by a certain date, and it has to be used by a certain date, and when government does projects there’s a whole lot of steps that are involved,” Lepera told MediaNews Group. “At least knowing that we are definitely getting the money, or actually getting the money so we can get it into use before it expires. It’s not something we can hold onto for 10 years. It’s quite a small timeline that we have.”

But Bonner maintained this practice is not altogether uncommon.

“Right now, we’re in the process of communicating and finalizing what that plan is,” Bonnier said, adding that “Norristown is certainly not alone. There are many of of our projects that haven’t actually received funding for a variety of good reasons.”

“It’s not to say they haven’t received it, and it’s a problem,” Bonner said. “It’s more to say we want to be sure what the program is before we move forward.”

Questions surrounding the $2 million small business grant funds were once again brought up at the Aug. 2 meeting when Councilman Dustin Queenan inquired about a possible timeline.

Along with Jones, Lepera and Vice President Heather Lewis had a call with Montgomery County Commissioners’ Chairman Ken Lawrence Jr. to discuss the matter. Jones said Lawrence gave “direction to his team” that “significant progress be made by the time we meet for our August meeting.”

“We haven’t gotten any word back since we submitted and answered the last group of questions, and I think we answered those questions … so as soon as I get it I will broadcast it from the hills,” Jones said.

Resolution could be soon

Bonner said Thursday they appear to be in the final stages, and he expects a resolution by mid-September.

This comes as Norristown council members finalized a sizable chunk of available monies from the municipality’s share of American Rescue Plan Act funding. The total $20.2 million was split in two installments.

The funding has designated purposes, such as economic development, infrastructure, local government fiscal recovery, as well as health and social service-related initiatives.

Nearly $9.5 million had been allocated in a series of projects. Figures from the “American Rescue Plan Act: Investing in Norristown Oct. 2022 Community Feedback Report” show that more than $7.5 million was dedicated to projects, while around $2 million was allocated for administrative costs.

Big-ticket items include $1.9 million on stormwater authority operations, $1.2 million on general 2022 budget relief and $1.15 million on Poley Park skatepark.

This most recent commitment budgeted $4 million for a new recreation center and Roosevelt Field, $2 million for budget supports and capital improvement program savings, $700,000 for blight remediation, $500,000 for Poley Park, and $130,000 for the municipality’s Story Path initiative.

Additionally, there was $250,000 set aside for “project contingencies or additional park upgrades,” according to municipal officials. A 5-0 vote during the Aug. 2 council meeting approved the funding allocations. Lewis and Councilwoman Tiffani Hendley were absent.

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