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Minnesota Townships Risk Losing ARP Funds Due to Deadline

Less than 60 percent of the state’s 1,781 townships have requested their share of the American Rescue Plan Act funds. Treasury Department officials are urging local governments to apply for funds before the Oct. 4 deadline.

(TNS) — Jeff Krueger fears that, come Monday, Oct. 4, hundreds of Minnesota townships will leave money on the table.

The state's 1,781 townships qualify for roughly $100 per resident from the American Rescue Plan Act. That money could help them get more broadband service, improve roads or shift township accounting from ledger paper to laptops, said Krueger, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Townships.

But with a Monday application deadline fast approaching, fewer than 60 percent of Minnesota's townships have requested their share of the funds.

"It's a shame. Every town can use this," said Perch Lake Town Clerk Lora Eames, whose community near Cloquet is contemplating putting the dollars toward grants, road repairs and video conferencing equipment. "I think our citizens would just be outraged if we didn't use the money."

The American Rescue Plan designated nearly $377 million for local governments in Minnesota with populations of fewer than 50,000 residents. The money can be used for a range of needs, including replacing revenue lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and upgrading water and sewer systems.

More than 600 townships — those with fewer than 200 residents — were not eligible for aid through last year's Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and this is their first chance to directly receive federal assistance during the pandemic.

But many of those same small towns could miss out again. Krueger said Treasury Department officials have told him that if a community doesn't apply for American Rescue Plan funding, Minnesota must redistribute that money to other small local government units.

But Minnesota Management and Budget officials disagree. They said the state isn't required to redistribute the dollars and that they will wait to see how much money is not requested before deciding what to do with it.

"We have partnered with local government organizations to reach as many public officials as possible with presentations at local government meetings, direct mail, e-mail newsletters, and an open e-mail inbox for one-on-one conversations. We urge local governments to request their funds before the Monday deadline," department spokeswoman Ellen Anderson said in a statement.

Nonetheless, Minnesota's applications are lagging behind those of some other states. A spokeswoman for the Michigan Townships Association said that at least 98 percent of its 1,240 townships had applied for the aid. Wisconsin Towns Association Executive Director Mike Koles said his state's deadline to apply is still a few weeks away and all but eight of its 1,245 towns have applied.

The average population of townships in Minnesota is a little over 500, Krueger noted, while Koles estimated the average size in Wisconsin is closer to 1,100.

Townships' excuses for not applying for the aid vary, Krueger said. For example, he said that although the American Rescue Plan was signed into law in March, one town official told him a couple of days ago that he was not even aware of its existence.

Many small communities depend on volunteers for their town's administration, some of whom are farmers who are now working around the clock in their fields.

Others have said they don't know how to spend the money. Krueger said he tells those officials: "You have three years to figure this out. Don't worry about that right now, just get the money."

Then, there are people who see the aid as a giveaway program and are too proud to accept what they see as a handout, he said.

The officials of Denmark Township, north of Hastings in Washington County, are not among them. Town Board Chair Kathy Higgins said the township applied months ago for its share of the money. She said the township's $220,000 allocation amounts to a major financial boost for the community.

"Oh, my goodness, yes. We're a town, we don't have all kinds of resources," she said.

Like many towns, the bulk of Denmark's money goes to roads, bridges and zoning, Higgins said. The township hasn't saved much for updating the town hall, so the federal funds could allow it to add touchless sinks and toilets and update audio visual equipment. But she said they're still in the initial stages of contemplating how to spend the money.

Denmark Township is not alone in considering town hall updates. Krueger, a supervisor of New Market Township in Scott County, said officials there are looking at town hall heating, ventilation and air conditioning updates.

"We want to make it safe for the public, when they do come in," Higgins said. "We want the environment to be public friendly."

©2021 StarTribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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