ELKO – Mayor Reece Keener said he wants to spend the nearly $27.5 million in American Rescue Plan money coming to the city on infrastructure and “taking care of the needs” of nonprofits that presented requests to the Elko City Council or will be doing so later.
Councilwoman Mandy Simons suggested a third to a half of the money could go to help the nonprofits and the remainder be used for infrastructure.
“This is just the starting point,” City Manager Curtis Calder said at the first of two city hearings on prioritizing how to spend the rescue funds, telling the council the second hearing will be in three to four weeks.
“At the second hearing, we will refine ideas and then it’s a matter of people filing,” Calder said.
City staff, meanwhile, will be preparing an application form for organizations seeking a share of the rescue money, he said.
The council did not take any action on any of the requests presented Sept. 8.
“I want to wait to see the applications and the needs and what costs and go from there,” said Councilman Clair Morris. Councilman Giovanni Puccinelli said the requests will “take a lot of thought. Everything we’re looking at deserves it.”
The council heard about the needs for water and sewer expansion for future home development, for more behavioral health care, for a childcare center, to expand the Family Resource Center, and the needs of the Igloo and Western Folklife Center.
Simons said her priority would be to “get people where they would have been” financially before the pandemic, and she saw the need for the behavioral health program “to get people mentally where they were.”
Councilman Chip Stone wondered about whether rescue funds could be used to help businesses impacted by the pandemic.
“If we start opening that valve, we will run out of money real quick,” Keener said, pointing out that there have been other funds available to help businesses.
Spending must fall into four categories: responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency or its negative economic impacts, providing premium pay to essential workers, covering loss of revenue due to the pandemic, and investments in water and sewer or broadband infrastructure.
Calder said nonprofit projects such as Nevada Health Centers’ proposal to provide increased behavioral health services and Boys & Girls Clubs’ childcare proposal qualify. Others can qualify for revenue replacement by showing how much money they lost due to the pandemic, and this could include those involved in travel and tourism.
Sheldon Hetzel of Bailey Homes encouraged the council to consider infrastructure projects, especially water projects that could allow for more home construction at higher elevations and boost property tax revenue for the city.
He said water tanks at higher elevation at the south end of Elko would not only open development but could provide critically needed back-up water for Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital.
He also supported road projects such as extending Errecart Boulevard.
Additionally, Hetzel said COVID-19 has had “significantly impacted the housing industry” because of tight building supplies and higher prices for those supplies that have led to surging home prices, and he predicted the housing crisis will get larger in the months ahead.
He said the council can expect to hear from people looking for help and could look at creative mechanisms.
Hetzel said the rescue money is “not just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Hopefully this can be used to benefit generations to come.”
Tom Tipton said the Tipton Family Trust has 305 acres and is in negotiations with the city for easements along Errecart Boulevard and for two water zones. Assistant City Manager Scott Wilkerson said the city can then begin the engineering process.
Hetzel said there is a “unique opportunity” with neighbors coming together to provide rights-of-way at the south end of Elko even before COVID-19 hit, so “it’s a great time to seize the moment. It opens hundreds of acres.”
Nevada Health Centers
Nevada Health Centers Chief Executive Officer Walter Davis said behavioral health is important to the Elko area. Steven Brotman, director of behavioral health operations, said there is “quite a significant” number of people needing behavioral health help in Elko, with 834 visits in Elko County in 2020.
Elko County also rates third highest in suicides in the state, Brotman said.
Christi Gunn, clinical director, said that currently the Elko Nevada Health Center provides telehealth services, but in-person care would benefit patients and medical staff.
“There is nothing like human touch,” she said.
The budget for expanding behavioral health services in Elko is $2.5 million, and the centers are asking for $2 million from the city to create an in-person program to serve Elko and the county. The Elko center already is expanding with renovation of the former surgical center on 14th Street.
Keener said the $2 million request is a big number but “there is a big need in the community” for behavioral health care, and “we will definitely take it into consideration.”
Calder said the Elko Police Department has seen the need for behavioral health care as the police are often called, and the city’s humanitarian camp for the homeless also points to the need for more care.
Stone said the need for mental health care has “just exploded” with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Childcare and more
The Boys & Girls Club is seeking $400,000 for a childcare center at its Elko facility for infant and toddlers. CEO Rusty Bahr said the pandemic accelerated childcare needs for all ages of children.
The club also plans to have extended hours for childcare of infants and older children, 4 a.m. to 8 p.m., because of the need, especially because other programs for children, including the city’s Fun Factory, closed in the pandemic.
The goal is to open the childcare center in Elko by May 2022.
“We will be the first one with an application in,” Bahr said.
Ashlyn Greener, executive director of the Family Resource Center, said there is “no doubt the pandemic left scars on the community,” and the next step is to strengthen nonprofit organizations “to help ease those scars.” She said the center’s caseload increased 20% during the pandemic.
Greener said the center’s corporate contributions slipped in the pandemic and other contributions slowed, and now the Family Resource Center needs to reconfigure and update the facility to provide separate offices, new flooring, and update restrooms.
The request totals $300,000.
Jon Griggs, chairman of the Western Folklife Center board, said the center lost money when the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering couldn’t hold an in-person event because of COVID-19. That was an economic hit to Elko hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses.
“It was tough on all of us. It was tough on the community and tough on the center,” he said.
The online gathering was well-attended, however, and he said he hopes to get those people to come to Elko for the in-person event.
The Western Folklife Center also has started incurring expenses as it plans the Jan. 24-29 gathering, he said.
The center will ask for $364,576, Griggs said.
Matt Burlow, president of the Igloo recreation center board, said Igloo was hurt by the pandemic like many other organizations, slowing progress for its ice hockey rink and prohibiting some sports activities, but “we were able to survive and get through. The real silver lining is that the community has been fantastic.”
He said that because of donations, Igloo didn’t “technically lose money” but it couldn’t hold fundraisers and it needs water upgrades for the ice rink project that would “come with a pretty good price tag.”
The question is whether rescue money can be used with infrastructure that goes onto private property, he said.
Igloo’s request would be for roughly $50,000, with loss of revenue and the water project combined.
Jan Baum, the city’s financial services director, said Elko is receiving nearly $27.48 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, with half coming this year and the other half next year. The city needs to have an initial spending plan by Oct. 31, although the costs must be incurred by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.
“It’s a lot of money, so we want to be able to have some input from the public,” she said.
Calder said the council has the final say on how to spend the money, but projects must meet federal criteria, and city staff will be checking carefully whether projects meet requirements so the government doesn’t come back a few years from now and want money back.