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Erie County Still Determining How to Spend ARP Funds

Officials remain in the planning phase on how to spend the rest of the county’s American Rescue Plan funds. Residents have advocated investing in education, broadband, minority investment and infrastructure.

(TNS) — There's just not enough money.

That's long been the response of local officials present and past when Erie's Black leaders have expressed the need for investment in distressed neighborhoods and the people who live in them, said James Sherrod, executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center.

"But there's no excuse now," Sherrod said.

That's because the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill signed into law this year by President Joe Biden to aid in the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, will soon inject more than $262 million into Erie County municipalities and school districts, which is about $13 million lower than originally estimated.

While some public officials have already determined how they'll spend their shares, such as the Millcreek Township supervisors ($5.8 million) and Erie School District directors ($60.5 million), others remain in the planning phases, such as Erie County government ($52.4 million), and the city of Erie ($76 million).

Behind the line items and dollar figures are Erie County residents like those living on Erie's east side — minority communities that have long struggled with poverty and its underlying causes, including racism, and who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

There are also people like the Ducketts and Christies, whose rural Fairview Township neighborhood is emblematic of the need for better high-speed broadband, or people like Sandra Galindo, a Mexican immigrant who has lived in Erie for 10 years. Galindo was forced to cut back her work hours so she could stay home with her children to help them with remote learning during the pandemic. A new summer program allows her kids to make up for the time lost in the classroom.

While not all of them are specifically calling for ARP money to address their concerns, they represent scores of people who could be affected by it.

Here are their stories.

Minority Investment Fund

Sherrod, along with Shantel Hilliard, the executive director of the Booker T. Washington Center, and Gary Horton, president of the Erie County chapter of the NAACP, make up the leadership group of the Minority Community Investment Coalition, or the MCIC.

The MCIC in 2019 bought 19 acres between East 16th Street and Downing Avenue in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. The vacant parcels are part of the Joyce A. Savocchio Opportunity Park, which MCIC has been attempting to develop, but has lacked the commitment from a major investor.

The project is just one of the ways MCIC would invest stimulus money, but it's far from the only thing, Sherrod, Hilliard and Horton said.

They're calling for $17 million to $20 million of American Rescue Plan funding from the city of Erie, the Erie City School District and Erie County government to create a minority investment fund.

" Black and brown people have to be given a vision that this city means what it says, that the county means what it says about being more inclusive and more diverse and more equitable, by putting their money where their mouth is," Horton said. "Us three gentlemen, we don't want to just hear ‘you're doing a great job' and 'you've got great ideas' while the investment goes somewhere else."

The money for a minority investment fund would go toward supporting minority-owned businesses, like daycare centers and restaurants, and entrepreneurs who have "new ideas" but have not received the support to get their plans off the ground.

It would also be used toward revitalizing neighborhoods and strengthening community centers like the Booker T. Washington Center, the Martin Luther King Center, the John F. Kennedy Center and the E.F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center.

"If you bring these funds into these communities and you don't invest in these populations, it's a travesty," Hilliard said. "There's no way that we should not be getting what's deserved for our populations of Black and brown people. (The American Rescue Plan) was created off the premise of who was disproportionately affected most by the pandemic."

Savocchio Park — named for the city's first female mayor, a three-term Democrat — falls in one of eight federal Opportunity Zones in the city. The park, which was once littered with debris, is among MCIC's initiatives.

MCIC, in partnership with the Urban Erie Community Development Corporation, bought 19 of the business park's 25 acres for $100,000 two years ago.

The plans call for a health and wellness center, an urban farming facility and a solar panel network. Solar power, Horton said, could be sold to the Erie Housing Authority to help it reduce its utility costs and reinvest the savings into its buildings. The idea is to create jobs and job-training opportunities at the park.

The Erie Community Foundation infused $250,000 into the plan. The Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine chipped in another $40,000. Erie Mayor Joe Schember has also backed the plan.

Still, no investor has come forward with the financial backing that the park needs.

Parris Baker, a professor and director of the social work programs at Gannon University, is a member of the Erie County's Council's COVID-19 Impact & Economic Revitalization Committee, formed earlier this year.

Baker said high poverty rates in the city, which a few years ago had the unfortunate distinction of having one of the poorest ZIP codes in the country, have long been a problem.

"The pandemic took away the veil from incredible institutional, systemic issues that have plagued those communities, and the reason that those communities were hit so hard by the pandemic is because they were so vulnerable ecologically before it," he said. "Because of the vulnerabilities in health care, education, housing, those kinds of things, it just really devastated those communities."

Erie needs a long-term comprehensive plan to address the issue of poverty, he said, not just financial investment.

"The money that's infused in the community (through the American Rescue Plan) probably will have minimal impact for the greater issues," he said. " Erie has an issue with eastside poverty. How do you change that? I think there's got to be a comprehensive plan, like the Erie Refocused plan, that says that we're going to address poverty in a very controlled, strategic way."


Mike Duckett's DSL internet connection slowed to a crawl when the pandemic hit in March 2020.

It was so slow, in fact, that Duckett's son, then an education major at Penn State Behrend, opted for a parking spot at McDonald's so he could access its Wi-Fi for his classes and student-teaching.

Duckett's daughter, a student at John Carroll University, had to make arrangements with professors because she couldn't download coursework quickly enough.

"We found ourselves with two college-aged kids in our house, my wife and I both working from home at that point because we were sent home," Duckett said. "And it's like, OK, now we have four people working off one DSL line. It's impossible. We had to really figure out what schedules we were going to be on because of the fact that we just didn't have any bandwidth."

Expanding and improving access to high-speed broadband internet was a piece of low-hanging fruit when local elected officials were asked earlier this year how they might prioritize spending ARP funding. The county wants to extend service where it doesn't exist and the city of Erie has discussed ways to provide free Wi-Fi to large swaths of the urban core for residents who have access to service but cannot afford it.

Utilities like water, sewer and cable internet don't extend to the rural stretch of Sterrettania Road where the Ducketts live.

More than a decade ago, Mike Duckett led a petition drive to force Verizon Wireless to extend DSL to his neighborhood.

In 2011, Verizon finally relented. But as technology and our dependence on it changed, so did the usefulness of DSL, Duckett said.

"DSL is as good as dial-up these days with what the requirements are for all of the learning media that we use and for my own business purposes," he said.

What frustrated Duckett a decade ago still frustrates him today — the red tape that residents must cut through and the costs they would incur to extend high-speed service to their homes.

Duckett notes that cable internet service through Spectrum stops four houses short of his neighborhood and Spectrum has told him it would cost him $8,000 to extend the line.

High-speed broadband typically refers to internet speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) or more, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

"Even when there was nobody in the school, my kids were still there every day because we just don't have internet at our house," said Eric Christie, one of Duckett's neighbors.

On some occasions, Christie, a chiropractor, took his 11- and 14-year-old children to his 38th Street practice so they could complete their remote school work.

"It was a hassle," he said. "We tried everything. The school gave us modems and hot spots, I guess they didn't work out. Our IT guy, who sets up all our computer stuff (at work) came out and he tried to put some stuff up on the roof and nothing worked. We just didn't have enough speed for the kids to download videos or submit stuff. Instead of it taking 30 seconds to download a video, it would take an hour. They were staying up till midnight, one in the morning just to get their homework done."

Matt Wiertel, director of sales and marketing for Erie-based Velocity Network, a fiber optic internet provider, said the issue of expanding broadband is made complex by the several funding sources already available and the rules those sources have about how the money can be spent.

Wiertel notes that the ARP will only fund broadband expansion in unserved or underserved areas (where speeds fall below the FCC's definition of broadband), but projects must provide service with upload and download speeds of 100 Mbps.

"Basically you put off the table anybody that can get a cable modem connection from Spectrum or Armstrong," he said. "That's kind of the challenge, identifying those areas."

The FCC is also launching an Emergency Connectivity Fund Program for schools, libraries, teachers, and students who lack internet access. It will cover the cost of things like Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, laptop and tablet computers, and off-campus commercially available internet access for students, school staff, and library patrons.

That's not all.

Last fall, Spectrum became eligible for billions in funding from the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which auctions off the rights to provide service in low-density, rural census tracts where it's lacking, including those in Erie County.

Velocity Network, Wiertel notes, is more capable and nimble than its competitors to address problems in Erie County because it's a local company. However, most of those programs prohibit grants from going to multiple companies to service the same area.

That's problematic, Wiertel said. For example, there's a six-year window for a federal program like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Therefore, even if Velocity Network wanted to immediately provide service to people in those areas — before Spectrum does — it can't access similar grant programs.

"These people need service yesterday, not years from now," he said.

Wiertel has addressed the issue with representatives of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D- PA, and U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-15th Dist.

Last year, Erie County used funding from its share of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to have Velocity Network extend its fiber internet to areas like Summit and North East townships.

The quandry now is whether to use local ARP dollars for a larger internet build-out when new sources of broadband-specific revenue are emerging, including potential funding from a proposed federal infrastructure bill.

Local ARP dollars could be deployed much more quickly than those state and federal programs, however, they can be used to meet a range of other needs, whereas the state and federal programs for broadband cannot.

"What we've been doing over the past month or so, if not longer, is working with North East Township, Washington Township, Girard Township and a few others," Wiertel said, "to identify what areas in their municipality don't have service and then putting some budgets together to say, OK, if we want to serve these folks, how much is that going to cost?"


Of the millions that will be disbursed throughout Erie County, more than $115 million will go to the 13 public school districts and four charter schools. A portion of the funding is required to go toward addressing learning loss.

That's why several districts have rolled out summer programs that focus on academics and enrichment, including the Erie School District.

Though it offered summer school in the past to older students, this year marks the first time the Erie School District is offering a summer program at each of its elementary schools, too.

The Student Acceleration through Instruction and Learning, or S.A.I.L., is offered in three sessions. Parents can opt to send their children to all three. They also can choose whether to send them for a half-day or a full-day.

"We've done summer school in the past, but never like this," Diehl Elementary School Principal Tim Sabol said as he walked from classroom to classroom recently. "We'd go from mid- to late June through the beginning of August. The way we're doing it now is in bursts, which I think allows families to have some flexibility."

The program has been a big benefit for Sandra Galindo, whose daughter, Camila Xelo, just completed fifth grade at Diehl.

"They sent me a paper about the details and what she's going to learn," she said. "I was so interested in it."

Galindo had to stay home to help Xelo and a younger daughter overcome the technological obstacles of remote learning.

"There were a lot of things I didn't know how to do on the Chromebook," Xelo said.

That required Galindo, 42, to miss work as a daytime server at Torero's Mexican Restaurant in Summit Township in addition to the times that the restaurant closed due to COVID-19 mitigation orders.

"I had to stop working in the morning for a year and then they closed for three months," she said. "It was hard, really hard. I lost a lot of money."

Another mother, Grace Amani, 28, who has four children and a fifth on the way, said two of her daughters, Jessica Kimwanga, who just finished fifth grade, and Maclana Amani, who just completed kindergarten, were eager for the summer program to start despite the fact the school year had ended only days earlier.

"This year was difficult for school," Amani said. "I wanted her (Jessica) to come to school more so she could learn more before going to the sixth grade."

Amani would work her third-shift job at the Harborcreek Township Wal-Mart and then return home to help her children with their school work, all while her husband worked full time. Amani couldn't provide the same instruction that teachers can, she said.

"They don't understand (their school work) at home," Amani said. "It's really better if they see the teacher because they understand the teacher more than the parents."

She hopes her two daughters can make up for some of the time lost in school during the pandemic by taking part in the summer program.

Superintendent Brian Polito said the district's ARP investments will fall into three categories: academic support, student assistance, and facilities upgrades.

The district is in the second phase of a building renovation plan that began a few years ago. The second phase comes with a $120 million price tag that is supported by existing district revenue and a bond issue. Of that $120 million, $78 million involves repairs to ventilation systems, Polito said.

After it addresses academic support and student assistance initiatives, the district expects to have about $47 million remaining from its $60.7 million share ARP funds for those repairs, Polito said.

In addition to the summer program, the district will reduce kindergarten class sizes to 20 students or fewer and implement an after-school program.

"Student supports is another big piece," Polito said. "We know that as a result of the pandemic that the students have had a lot of trauma and issues. We want to make sure that we're also addressing the social and emotional needs of our students."

The district will hire blended case managers for the elementary schools that don't yet have them — Wilson, Jefferson, JoAnna Connell, Lincoln and Grover Cleveland.

Not only that, it will use ARP funding to turn those buildings into United Way community schools. The district will pay for three years of the initiative and the United Way, Polito said, has agreed to fund another three after that.

"What that'll do is give us six years of community schools in all of our schools and six years to find corporate partners to fund the ones that will be funded under the (American Rescue Plan)," he said.


After Millcreek Township supervisors learned they would receive another $5.8 million in federal aid, this time from the ARP, they agreed to forgive loans given to township businesses during the pandemic, Supervisor Dan Ouellet said.

The next thing they did was agree that the remaining money should be invested in one of the township's most pressing problems: wastewater treatment and, predominantly, stormwater runoff.

"It's about time," Millcreek resident Rev. Vince Rizzone said after being told of the supervisors' plan.

Rizzone, a resident of the 1000 block of Filmore Avenue, has been frequently flooded out during heavy rainstorms in recent years. He even installed a camera in his home so that he could monitor conditions through a phone app when it rained and he was at work.

"I flooded three times in two years," Rizzone said. "We don't have a basement, so it was like 12 inches of water in my garage and it was a mess. It just messed up a lot of stuff."

Rizzone, 67, and his wife moved to their Filmore Avenue home in 2003, but flooding issues didn't become a problem until 2016.

Last year, the township cleared out a long stretch of a ditch near his home, providing him and his neighbors some relief.

"They really did a lot of work," he said.

But Rizzone said the problem is widespread in Millcreek and that it's only a matter of time before the ditch near his home becomes clogged with debris again.

"Off Peninsula Drive by the viaduct there, I know a man who has a plastic shop and the shop got flooded," said Rizzone, a toolmaker at Matrix Tool Inc. and a pastor who runs Mission Riders Motorcycle Ministry. "There was a place off of 26th Street that had flooding. There's all these different places. My parents used to live on Indiana Drive down at the bottom of Sixth street, they got nailed, too."

In addition to addressing pandemic-related issues, including the loss of tax revenue, the American Rescue Plan also allows communities to fix some infrastructure projects. In 2019, Millcreek and Erie collaborated to fund separate studies of their stormwater infrastructures.

In Millcreek's case, its stormwater infrastructure has been incapable of meeting the demands of its rapid commercial growth, which took off in the 1970s. Too many impervious surfaces, like parking lots, mean there are inadequate natural spaces for rain or melting snow and ice to go.

"We know that that's going to be an expensive proposition, whether it is wastewater or stormwater," Ouellet said. "These are all things that are underground and nobody notices until they're an issue. Traditionally we dealt with them when they cropped up. The plan now is to be proactive and get ahead of these things."

The North East Borough has yet to formally discuss how it will spend its share of the money, but Borough Manager Pat Gehrlein said that ideally it would be used for an "impactful" infrastructure project — perhaps something like a major sidewalk replacement program, new street lighting or to revamp the Route 89 underpass that greets visitors as they enter town from the interstate, he said.

"I'd like to do something that you can't normally do," he said. "If taxpayer dollars are keeping the trains running on track, this (funding) could be that gap for a project, or we'd use it to springboard other funds, or use it as our match contribution for a grant and actually get some real bang for our buck."

Volunteer Fire Companies

More than 30 volunteer fire departments operate in Erie County and all of them face staffing shortages that are consistent with state and national trends. Others are battling an inferno of funding issues made worse by the pandemic.

"It depends on where you're at in Erie County," said Jim Rosenbaum, assistant fire chief of the West Ridge Fire Department in Millcreek Township and a member of the Erie County Public Safety Advisory Committee. "There are some departments that are having some severe financial struggles. And then there's some that are really more focused on the manpower issue. Manpower, though, is definitely a common problem across the board."

West Ridge didn't see any drop-off in donations to its fund drive, which supports about 90 percent of its operations, during the pandemic, he said, but staffing remains an issue.

On the other hand, the North East Fire Department, which consists of the Fuller Hose and Crescent Hose companies, last year had to forego its biggest annual fundraiser, the North East Cherry Festival in July, because of the pandemic, and it will do so again this year. Like last year, the volunteer firefighters had to settle on drive-thru food sales.

"What we try to do is get enough to help us with our insurance, which insures our buildings, our equipment," Chief Dave Meehl said about Cherry Festival revenue. "That usually runs around $40,000. That's always been our goal. When we get anything extra, that goes toward training."

Even though mitigation orders will be largely lifted by mid-July, the carnival company that brings rides and games to the grounds of Heard Park has scrapped plans to travel to this region because so many other festivals have been canceled, Meehl said recently.

The department approached the borough for funding relief in early June. Those discussions will continue after its drive-thru food sales.

Jessica Horan-Kunco, executive director of the Erie Area Council of Governments, is chairing a Public Safety Advisory subcommittee on volunteer fire department recruitment and retention. The Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development is studying the manpower issues of volunteer firefighters and EMS personnel in Erie County, she said.

It would be premature, she said, to seek ARP funding before the study is complete. However, unlike CARES Act funding, which helped about 20 fire companies cover the cost of emergency expenses in 2020, ARP funds don't have to be used until the end of 2024.

"In the long-range, there could be a great use of ARP dollars to help solve the crisis facing EMS and fire," she said, "but we need to have a coordinated solution and a program that we're intending to implement rather than just giving those dollars to agencies and saying 'go ahead and use them how you want We really want to be strategic and fix the problem."

Erie County's Council's COVID-19 Impact & Economic Revitalization Committee has spent several months meeting with a range of community members from different sectors. Among them have been members of public safety forces.

"They need help in a couple of different ways," Council Chairman Carl Anderson said. "How can we help fund the volunteer fire companies, one, to keep them stable coming out of the pandemic, but also" to address the challenges they faced prior to it.

"Maybe county government needs to do something more," Anderson said. "Maybe we need to help pay for the training of the volunteers."

American Rescue Plan

The $1.9 trillion federal stimulus act will infuse more than $262 million into Erie County, according to official federal and state allocations. The allocations are about $13 million lower than what groups like the National League of Cities and the Northwest Intermediate Unit projected based on initial funding provisions. The city of Erie, for example, will receive roughly $3 million less than originally estimated, while school district funding is also lower. The funds are expected to be allocated in two payments, with the first being made in coming weeks and the second coming 12 months later.

County & Large Municipalities

Erie County — $52,391,502 City of Erie — $76,098,836 Millcreek Township — $5,860,073

Townships, Cities and Boroughs Under 50,000

Albion Borough — $151,666 Amity Township — $109,693 Concord Township — $133,767 Conneaut Township — $461,800 Corry city — $649,786 Cranesville Borough — $62,278 Edinboro Borough — $577,251 Elgin Borough — $21,457 Elk Creek Township — $182,648 Fairview Township — $1,050,565 Franklin Township — $168,936 Girard Borough — $304,901 Girard Township — $508,064 Greene Township — $470,069 Greenfield Township — $196,987 Harborcreek Township — $1,788,901 Lake City Borough — $298,726 Lawrence Park Township — $391,882 LeBoeuf Township — $171,553 McKean Borough — $38,623 McKean Township — $451,962 Mill Village Borough — $40,298 North East Borough — $422,131 North East Township — $646,960 Platea Borough — $41,868 Springfield Township — $343,315 Summit Township — $757,072 Union City Borough — $326,359 Union Township — $166,738 Venango Township — $234,982 Washington Township — $462,637 Waterford Borough — $156,480 Waterford Township — $424,748 Wattsburg Borough — $39,879 Wayne Township — $163,703 Wesleyville Borough — $326,254

Erie County Public School Districts

Corry Area — $7,565,425 Erie — $60,737,251 Fairview — $1,198,287 Fort LeBoeuf — $3,472,419 General McLane — $2,463,146 Girard — $4,512,484 Harbor Creek — $2,101,760 Iroquois — $2,796,329 Millcreek — $9,423,795 North East — $2,977,745 Northwestern — $3,406,672 Union City Area — $3,065,881 Wattsburg Area — $2,142,917

Charter schools

Erie Rise Leadership Academy Charter School — $2,016,168 Montessori Regional Charter School — $2,115,917 Charter School of Excellence — $2,727,587 Robert Benjamin Wiley Charter School — $2,350,223

(c)2021 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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