Federal legislation makes Wrangell eligible for final round of pandemic aid

Last September, the borough was excluded from the final round of federal pandemic aid, which distributed $27 million to Alaska communities through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. However, recent legislation will make funding available to communities that were previously ineligible — including Wrangell.

The provision, which was included in the appropriations bill signed by the president on Dec. 29, allows states, tribes and local governments additional flexibility in their allocation of federal funds. The provision was part of a much larger bill with a much wordier name: the State, Local, Tribal and Territorial Fiscal Recovery, Infrastructure and Disaster Relief Flexibility Act.

While $1 million was allocated for Petersburg and $621,000 for Haines last year, Wrangell was left off the list until congressional action to fix the omission.

“This bipartisan effort will benefit many of Alaska’s unified municipalities, who unfortunately were left out on relief funding intended to help address the economic impacts of the pandemic,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski in an official statement on the bill. “This legislation resolves the errors that made it harder for those communities to access and use those funds.”

Most of the municipalities that were left off the initial aid list were incorporated as “city and borough,” leading Alaska Municipal League Executive Director Nils Andreassen to suspect that the Treasury Department was confused about Alaska’s unique “borough” designation.

However, municipalities nationwide were also affected. The Alaska Municipal League joined with organizations like the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities and other local governments to advocate for the changes.

The process involved notifying Alaska’s congressional delegation of the issue, assessing the definitions of eligible communities and “thinking about how the census bureau defines consolidated government,” Andreassen explained. The organizations also met with the treasury to help identify a legislative fix.

Murkowski called the act “common sense legislation” and “a simple fix that will make a difference for communities across Alaska.” Andreassen described it as “good progress.”

This last round of federal pandemic aid has fewer strings attached than previous pandemic aid payments, which often focused on controlling the pandemic’s spread and impact. “Under this program, recipients have broad discretion on uses of funds, similar to the ways in which they may use funds generated from their own revenue sources,” the U.S. Treasury Department website reads.

Andreassen is not certain how long it will take for another round of applications to open and for previously overlooked communities to start receiving aid. The deadline to apply for the first round of awards is Jan. 31. “Given (the Treasury’s) capacity,” he said, “they might be focused on doing that first.” After the initial round is processed, he estimated that there would be a 60- to 90-day wait before newly eligible communities could apply.

“We’re just kind of in this waiting period as they work through their process,” he added.

On the initial list, the Kenai Peninsula Borough was allocated $6 million, Ketchikan Gateway Borough $4.1 million, Kodiak Borough $2.4 million and Petersburg Borough $1 million.

Communities with “Municipality” or “City and Borough” designations, like Juneau, Sitka, Anchorage and Wrangell, were not included, with the exception of the City and Borough of Yakutat, which received $211,000.

Andreassen does not anticipate that Kenai, Ketchikan and others will receive less funding once unfunded communities apply. “The total amount of funding available for all cities and counties was $1.5 billion,” he said. “For these four jurisdictions, we’re talking $10 million. … I could imagine that there’s at least that much that doesn’t get taken up by other jurisdictions.”

Borough Manager Jeff Good is working to set up a meeting with the Treasury and Alaska Municipal League to determine how much funding could be available for Wrangell. The money could be used for any government purpose except lobbying.

“We’re all interested in seeing what this will look like,” said Andreassen. “And hopefully it does good things for our communities.”

 

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