ARPA fund legal opinion should arrive within the week

By Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey
Reader Staff

The use of American Rescue Plan Act funds by Bonner County has remained a hot topic of discussion at weekly commissioner meetings since early November, when Sheriff Daryl Wheeler moved to return ARPA monies after discovering possible “strings attached” to the acceptance and spending of the federal relief funds.

The core of concern, expressed by elected officials and citizens alike, is whether using ARPA funds commits Bonner County to comply with all federal executive orders — particularly, any orders pertaining to required vaccination against the novel coronavirus. 

Commissioners have assured the public that their legal counsel is looking into it — an effort that should culminate within the week, according to Bonner County Deputy Prosecutor Scott Bauer, who told the Reader on Jan. 3 that the county’s civil attorney team will be releasing its findings on the ARPA fund requirements later this week or early next.

“We are working to get a consensus opinion between the three of us, and we’re hopefully going to get it done very early next week,” said Bauer, referring to himself, Deputy Prosecutor Bill Wilson and Prosecutor Louis Marshall. He noted that the county has also consulted with an outside firm on the issue to get “a second set of eyes on it.”

While the county regularly accepts and spends federal grants as part of daily operations, relief funds related to COVID-19 have raised concerns about what conditions could come with the ARPA money.

“I think it is clear what the intention of the American Rescue Plan Act is,” said resident Kendra Martin, who, at the Jan. 4 meeting, cited a letter from President Joe Biden that accompanied payment notices to beneficiaries under ARPA, in which the president called the act “a law that will help vaccinate America.” 

“We have a constitutional sheriff who saw it plain as day right off the bat and returned the money,” Martin continued. “I still don’t understand why you are dragging your feet.”

Bonner County was allotted nearly $9 million under ARPA, some of which has already been spent by EMS. Though Wheeler requested about $28,500 for “COVID mitigation” at the jail, he asked commissioners to return that money to county coffers after consulting with Clerk Mike Rosedale and discovering a condition in the U.S. Treasury Department’s guidelines stating that recipients of ARPA funds must “comply with all other applicable federal statutes, regulations and executive orders, and [the] recipient shall provide for such compliance by other parties in any agreements it enters into with other parties relating to this award.”

Vaccines are of particular concern to county leaders as well as their most vocal anti-mandate constituents, as commissioners passed a resolution in October pledging to oppose any orders requiring citizens to be inoculated against the virus.

According to Bauer, should county departments continue to spend ARPA funds and then discover it ties them to all current and future federal mandates, “we could be in violation of an executive order if it says, ‘do everything that you can to encourage county-wide vaccinations.’”

“The question is, given the contract for the funds, can they impose future requirements, not just subject us to current executive orders or current treasury regulations?” Bauer said, adding later: “That is, to me, the core question.”

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