Michigan Committee Advances Voter ID Requirement Bills

The Senate Elections Committee has advanced the Republican-sponsored election bill that would overhaul the state’s election laws and it would increase voter identification requirements for voting in person or by mail.

(TNS) — Fairhope might have a quaint downtown, but there are no skyscrapers or major turnpikes that would suggest Alabama’s fastest-growing city is the typical “metropolitan.”

Muscle Shoals might be the largest city in Colbert County and has a famed music studio, but it’s far from being confused with Birmingham or Huntsville.

But a recent classification of the two cities as a “metropolitan” under the American Rescue Plan Act has officials in both cities asking questions. The cities are among 21 in Alabama labeled a “metropolitan” under the federal relief act.

Alabama officials say that because both cities are considered metropolitans, they are set to receive considerably less money in relief funds than initial estimates suggested in March. Fairhope near Alabama’s Gulf Coast is set to get $1.9 million, down 55 percent from the $4.2 million estimated in March. Muscle Shoals in Northwest Alabama will receive $1.3 million, down 52 percent from the $2.7 million in initial estimates.

“We have not really made any plans for the money but we’re starting to look at it when we found out that we were only getting $1.9 million,” said Fairhope Mayor Sherry Sullivan said about the relief aid.

She said part of her concern is that in next-door Daphne, the city is receiving $2 million more than Fairhope. The two cities are adjacent to each other and are separated by only a 4,000-population difference.

While Fairhope and Muscle Shoals are growing cities, neither are anywhere close to the 50,000-population threshold that typically defines a metropolitan city by the U.S. Treasury Department. Daphne, by way of comparison, is also included among cities classified as “metropolitan” in Alabama through the American Rescue Plan Act.

In the March estimates, the three cities were grouped with smaller Alabama cities, and were set to get higher allocation amounts.

The federal government is determining metropolitan status by weighing eligibility to participate in the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program, regardless on whether the city currently participates. The CDBG program doles out the grants each year to larger cities for improved housing and neighborhood developments and economic opportunities to low and moderate-income people.

Only 10 cities in Alabama have a population above 50,000, according to latest Census estimates. But under the American Rescue Plan Act, the smallest city labeled a “metropolitan” is Gulf Shores with a 2019 population estimate of 12,267.

Gulf Shores is set to get $1.26 million, down 46 percent from the $2.36 million in the March estimate.

“We plan to include these funds in our budget process and be strategic in how these funds will be utilized once we fully understand the eligibility criteria,” said Grant Brown, a Gulf Shores city spokesman.

‘Estimates that could change’



A decline in expected relief money is not just an Alabama issue. Nationwide, smaller cities are struggling to find to find out why initial allocations within the American Rescue Plan Act were much more generous than what they are getting. Meanwhile, questions continue to swirl over how the money can be used.

The $1.9 trillion federal law, signed by President Joe Biden in March, provided $350 billion for governments to reimburse cities for pandemic-related expenses and to fill revenue shortfalls some cities suffered last year.

The U.S. Treasury Department is charged with administering the program, and the agency issued its “interim rules” last month on how to utilize the money to cities. A public comment period is underway, and Alabama officials are anticipating final rulings and guidance on the money later this summer.

But within the Treasury Department’s information released last month were revised allocations and classifications for metropolitan cities, which are posted on the National League of Cities’ website.

In the cases of Fairhope and Muscle Shoals, those final numbers are far different than the initial estimates released by the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee in March.

Fairhope, in an email the city received from the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund Center, was informed that those March figures were “unofficial allocation estimates” produced by “other organizations” that “may have classified certain local governments as non-entitlement units of local government.”

According to the email, the Treasury Department says that “based on statutory definitions, some of these local governments should have been classified as metropolitan cities.”

Fairhope is also a principle city within the Daphne- Fairhope- Foley metropolitan statistical area, which would make it eligible to be classified as a “metropolitan” city for the relief money.

Greg Cochran, executive director with the Alabama League of Municipalities, said that Muscle Shoals city officials recently sent a letter to the Treasury Department “pointing out that the CDBG funds they received were years ago,” and that the city ought to be reassigned to a non-entitlement community, similar to smaller cities under 50,000 people.

The Treasury Department’s email to Fairhope provided some answers. In it, a Treasury Department official says that a “city is eligible to be a metropolitan city” even if it falls below the 50,000-population threshold under the American Rescue Plan Act and even if it no longer participates in the CDBG program.

Said Cochran, “We always told our members the March numbers were purely estimates that could change.”

That said, Cochran said cities are generally excited to claim the relief funds for water infrastructure projects. Water, sewer and broadband projects are eligible for funding under the relief act.

Other eligible activities for the money include:

-Respond to pandemic-related public health impacts or negative economic impacts including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits. Also eligible for the aid is the hospitality industry – travel and tourism.

-Premium pay for essential workers.

-To cover for lost revenue in providing services.

The money, however, cannot be used to replenish a city’s rainy-day fund.

And it cannot be used to make up for lost revenues from a tax cut, nor can it be utilized to cover for pension shortfalls.

‘Still awaiting answers’



Cochran said his agency is working with the Alabama Department of Finance to provide a portal for smaller cities not labeled a “metropolitan” areas under the American Rescue Plan Act, to register their information to secure funding. He said that virtual meetings will be held with the National League of Cities to provide more information, and that details will also be posted on the League’s website.

“Many of the questions asked by our members are still awaiting answers from U.S. Treasury,” Cochran said.

Counties are also on hold for more information. Sonny Brasfield, executive director with the Alabama Association of County Commissions, said the U.S. Treasury’s release last month was an “interim final rule, rather than a guidance” on how the money should be utilized. He said the current interim rule has a 90-day comment period that will end in early August, and changes are anticipated based on comments the federal government will get from local units of government nationwide.

Brasfield and others say there is plenty of time remaining: The current interim rule requires funding to be obligated by December 31, 2024, and “grants an additional two years to complete any projects that are underway by the end of 2024.”

Said Brasfield, “So this is really a six-year program. Bottom line, we are advising counties to wait on the final rule before moving forward. At that point, the requirements for using this money will be much more reliable.”

Birmingham and Mobile, however, are pushing ahead as they begin receiving the first half of their allocations as large cities around the U.S. begin receiving initial deposits from the Treasury Department.

Birmingham is getting $141.2 million in relief funds, down from $148.8 million or only 5 percent. Mobile is getting $58.2 million, down from $60.2 million, or 3.3 percent.

Cities and counties are getting half of their allotments now and the other half about a year from now.

The Birmingham City Council, on Tuesday, endorsed a proposal from Mayor Randall Woodfin to provide a one-time $5,000 bonuses for every city employee, costing $16.8 million. The bonus money will come from the relief fund money.

In Mobile, Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration met on Tuesday to discuss how they plan to spend their allocations. A final plan is expected to be released to the City Council for consideration later this month, according to Chie of Staff James Barber.

“We have a lot of capital improvement projects going on right now and there are a lot of shortage of labor and material issues so being able to make sure we can identify projects we can execute on within that time period is a little bit of a challenge for us,” Barber said.

Barber said some of Mobile’s allotment could go toward capital projects that improve drainage within the city. He said that the city’s legal staff will be reviewing every project considered for the money out of concerns of running afoul with the U.S. Treasury.

“If you spend Treasury money on something you are not supposed to spend it on, then that money has to be returned to the Treasury and we’d have to figure out how to make it up,” said Barber. “We have to be thoughtful on how we make these expenditures.”

Not every large city is moving forward with plans. Huntsville city officials are waiting until the Treasury Department finalizes its final rules for the money sometime later this summer.

“Once that process is complete, and Treasury will determine its final rules for recipients and the city of Huntsville will be able to (make) decision on the use of the funds,” said Kelly Schrimsher, spokeswoman with the city of Huntsville.


©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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