EVELETH — A St. Louis County Board workshop aimed at introducing how the county planned to spend $54.5 million of federal COVID-19 rescue dollars came laced with acrimony Tuesday.
Commissioner Ashley Grimm’s efforts to discuss the proposal were turned away by board leadership and the majority of rural-most board members — who seemed determined to work with administration outside the public record.
“Not to sound like a broken record, but it is really important we work together as a board to determine some type of public input process,” Grimm said. “Almost no constituent has seen this proposal, and we don't have a plan collectively as a board to get input.”
The federal government delivered half of $54.5 million to the county recently as part of $1.7 trillion in American Rescue Act funds designed to combat COVID-19 and inject project development dollars into communities across the country. The city of Duluth similarly received $58 million in funding. The back half of the funds, an additional $27.27 million, arrives next year.
The money has to be committed by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by the last day of 2026, and as such it has taken jurisdictions time to plan how to spend the money since first learning of its arrival last spring.
St. Louis County administration described it as money designed to be spent and not tucked away for rainy days. It also cannot be spent to offset tax cuts, used in pensions, or as debt service.
Grimm, the commissioner from western Duluth, wasn’t finding any traction with her peers or county administration in pursuit of a public review process.
County Administrator Kevin Gray encouraged commissioners to reach out privately, expecting “feedback following this workshop,” he said. In the paper copy of the proposal, administration specifically outlined a Sept. 21-27 window for “additional commissioner input accepted," leaving little room for workshop dialogue.
Board Chair Mike Jugovich, of Chisholm, also expected closed, 1-on-1 discussion with administration following its hour-plus proposal on how the funds would be distributed for purposes like homelessness response, the long-term fight against the pandemic, and infrastructure proposals.
“I thought we’d get our thoughts and bring them back to administration, rather than doing it here,” Jugovich said. “We can’t do anything here (in terms of voting).”
Grimm was installed in January after winning election last November to fill the seat vacated by Beth Olson. Grimm's efforts to coax transparency and a larger exchange of ideas earned a cold reception, not unlike the one reserved for her predecessor from time to time.
At one point, commissioners moved for a break, while Grimm pleaded to discuss the proposal to spend the federal money.
“One of the challenging things for me to navigate as a new commissioner is that these are the only spaces where I get to talk to all of the commissioners because of open meeting laws,” Grimm explained after the break. “And since we haven’t done a strategic plan that drives the use of (American Rescue Plan Act) funds, this is a really critical time for me and all of us to … work together.”
Duluth-based Commissioner Frank Jewell called out the group, including himself, for moving around the room and being disrespectful as Grimm spoke.
“It feels like half the crew has quit listening,” he said before the break.
Commissioner Keith Musolf, representing Hermantown, Proctor, Rice Lake and areas surrounding Duluth, later joined the majority in declining to entertain public hearings.
“This falls back in my view that we’re all elected for a reason — to be in touch with our district and our communities and bring that to the table,” Musolf said. “Although if this is going to be public hearing stuff, then we’re going to do one in every community, so everybody’s accessible? … I see that as a large waste, to be honest.”
Grimm has held one virtual public input session on the topic of Rescue Plan funding earlier this month. Commissioner Keith Nelson, based in Virginia, seemed to target that effort, after first saying he intended no disrespect to Grimm while moving about the room earlier.
“I’ve held special meetings in my district over the years many times,” Nelson said. “You can fill rooms with special interest groups all the time.”
The proposal will go to the St. Louis County Board at its committee of the whole meeting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday at the Alborn Community Center, 6388 Highway 7. The board will vote on a final proposal Oct. 5 in Duluth.
Among the highlights of the proposal:
$3.7 million for personnel and overtime costs incurred during COVID-19 response.
An estimated $7.25 million to replace lost revenues to date.
$2 million to help local broadband projects reach fruition.
$5 million for future costs combatting COVID-19.
$2 additional million for the $7 million Clarity Project crisis center planned for Duluth and designed to relieve regional emergency rooms of patients cycling in mental health crises.
$10 million for leachate treatment system and landfill improvements expected to extend lifespans of county landfill assets 50 years.
$7 million in general county operational costs, projects and improvements, including information technology investments.
$1 million aimed at augmenting existing avenues for businesses in need of rescue dollars.
$4 million aimed at homelessness, including a concept to build multiple, smaller units of supportive housing.
“We know somehow we have to respond to the homelessness and housing instability issues that we have,” said Brian Fritsinger, deputy county administrator.
Linnea Mirsch, Public Health and Human Services director, reported that the community of local service providers had submitted an "extreme proposal" of $33 million to address homelessness and housing instability.
But only a portion of $4 million allocated toward homelessness in the county’s Rescue Plan proposal would go toward community homelessness efforts, she said.
“We are hearing the County Board is more interested in funding permanent supportive housing,” Mirsch said, “adding beds that have a chance to really impact the trajectory of people staying housed.”
When the commissioners in the rural-most/Iron Range majority wanted to highlight funding decisions, they did.
Chair Jugovich noted the county’s use of $650,000 in Rescue Plan funds toward the $3.8 million expansion of a solar project in Mountain Iron.
“Again, it’s the Iron Range leading in green energy and, maybe, maybe, maybe, we should get notice, notification this does happen,” Jugovich said. “All the things that we’re striving for, and you can’t say that enough, the Range is a leader in green energy. Maybe we do know a thing or two about the environment?”
Nelson said he wouldn’t use Rescue Plan funds on the purchase of a generator at the Virginia Government Services Center, which was built new for $19 million and opened in 2019.
“I’ll just label that one as bulls---,” Nelson said. “We cut it out of the original building, (we’ll) find a way to fund it out of the monies that are coming in.”
News Tribune reporter Brady Slater covers St. Louis County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.