FAYETTEVILLE — Washington County justices of the peace Thursday debated giving $2.3 million from the county’s remaining COVID relief fund to nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations.
The Quorum Court County Services Committee discussed the allocation of funds made available to the county under the American Rescue Planning Act, but took no action.
Sam Duncan, a justice of the peace and district 7 committee chair, said District Judge Joseph Wood asked a justice of the peace to consider providing the money.
The county received about $23 million in ARPA last year and another $23 million in 2022.
Brian Lester, Wood’s chief of staff and district attorney, said about $29 million in funding was unallocated to the US bailout planning bill.
The county’s ARPA director, Brandi Wilhite, told the committee that the county is contracting with the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District in Harrison to establish an application process for the money. The district pays up to $30,000 to the Economic Development District to review applications and determine whether applications meet federal guidelines. Those that do are submitted to the County Services Committee for consideration.
Wilhite said the application process will be posted on the county’s website once it is complete.
Several members of the public spoke to justices of the peace, urging them to consider organizations working during the COVID pandemic to help people with basic needs in the community.
James Missionary Baptist Church in Fayetteville said the county spent money without a process allowing for equal consideration for all applicants. She said St James’s has continued to operate a food bank during the pandemic, which has seen a huge increase in the number of people.
The Quorum Court used approximately $5.3 million for bonuses and awards for county employees in 2021. The district returned about $292,000 of that money to the fund in January after it was not spent in 2021 on a potential Juvenile Justice Center expansion. An additional $250,000 was allocated for new electronic ballot books for the Washington County Election Commission. The justices of the peace also approved spending about $265,000 on remodeling and new furniture for the County Assessor’s Office.
Justices of the Peace raised approximately $5.4 million to purchase self-contained breathing apparatus and equipment for the Rural Fire Association, $2.9 million to support the NWA jobs program for higher qualifications, new ambulances and equipment for the central rescue service. Approximately $1.5 million was allocated. $315,000 to continue a contract with Returning Home to help men who violated parole to avoid reincarnation.
The quorum also approved the transfer of $10 million of the county’s US bailout plan to a special revenue replacement fund. There are fewer restrictions on how this money is used than the rest of the hedge plan fund.
Jones said she worked through the process established by Fayetteville and would go through any process the county would adopt.
“I’m going to jump ropes, I’m going to jump through hoops for my community,” Jones said.
Beth Koger of Fayetteville, District 9 Justice of the Peace, said the county should allocate more funding to nonprofit and community organizations. She suggested increasing the amount given to justices of the peace to “at least” $5 million.
Also on Thursday, the Quorum Court Finance and Budget Committee met to continue work on the county’s 2023 budget.
Justices of the Peace reviewed the county assessor’s budget; Budgets of District Court Divisions I, V and VI; and the Office of Public Defender.
The budget proposal for the Office of the Public Defender drew the most attention, as the budget calls for an increase in funding for part-time employees from $32,000 to $97,500.
Lena Houston, deputy chief of the public defender’s office, told the committee that the motion was drafted in cooperation with the prosecutor’s office to achieve parity between the two offices. Houston said the prosecutor’s office has five part-time employees who make $15 an hour and can work up to 25 hours a week.
“It’s the same number that the DA has,” Houston said of the Public Defender’s Office request.