By David Slone
WARSAW — Wagon Wheel Center for the Arts will get $100,000 less in American Rescue Plan Act funds from the county than the ARPA Committee recommended because of a decision by the county commissioners Tuesday, Sept. 26.
During the Sept. 13 ARPA Committee meeting — comprised of Commissioner Cary Groninger, County Council President Mike Long and Councilwoman Sue Ann Mitchell — the committee obligated the remaining county ARPA dollars by recommending $400,000 to the public safety communications tower in Sidney; $121,503 to Joe’s Kids for lights and security; $350,000 to Wagon Wheel for their renovation sustainability project; and $100,000 to the YMCA for the repurposing of the former Madison Elementary School gymnasium. The commissioners and council have since approved the $400,000 for the tower.
Before the commissioners Tuesday were the last three recommendations, to the Wagon Wheel, Joe’s Kids and YMCA, presented by County Administrator Marsha McSherry. The county council will be asked to approve the three recommendations at their Oct. 12 meeting, including the reduced amount of $250,000 for the Wagon Wheel.
After pointing out he did abstain from voting on the YMCA request on the ARPA Committee because of his conflict of interest, Groninger said all three organizations requesting information were at that meeting and had made presentations to the committee on what they were requesting the money for. He said all three were significantly impacted by COVID-19 and do provide services to the community.
Commissioner Bob Conley had concerns with the money going toward the YMCA, but even more so for the Wagon Wheel.
“I think, the Y thing, I think if we can work some kind of deal there where the county employees can be the recipient of it being close to the Justice Building and courtroom, just down the street, I’d be in favor of that,” Conley said. “My only question to Cary is, do you feel of these three, that there was maybe someone who is more worthy or maybe needed the money more? I mean, the $350,000 to the Wagon Wheel — a one-time deal with ARPA money — I wouldn’t do it with local tax money, but with ARPA money, I think that’s a different ballgame altogether.”
Conley said he definitely didn’t have any problem with granting the money to Joe’s Kids and probably the YMCA if there is more of a direct benefit to the county employees.
Groninger said if the three requests were approved, there would be just a “pinch” under $5,000 remaining of the county’s ARPA funds to delegate. He said the committee had closed the requests as far as when applicants could apply for funds.
“Of the applicants we had left, these were the ones that rose to the top that we felt were most impactful and met the requirements that we were looking for” as far as having a long-term impact and seeing some sort of return on the county’s investment.
Conley asked, “I guess my thinking on the Wagon Wheel renovations project — $350,000 for a roof — that’s just on the Wagon Wheel building, it’s not on the restaurant part?”
Groninger said it’s just for the Wagon Wheel facility and it wasn’t just for a roof, but also some drainage issues and possibly some restroom updates.
“It was part of a $1.1 million (project). The $350,000 is part of a bigger project that they were having to fund raise. Pretty much a 2-to-1 as far as they are going to have to fund raise twice as much as what we were giving them, so it’s not like there isn’t going to be skin in the game from the local community to try to make the project happen,” Groninger said.
Conley said he’d have no problem with Wagon Wheel “if we split that and gave them half of what they’re asking for, but held the other half if they needed it or if we need it for the tower project.” He said he’d hate to see the tower project get started, all the ARPA funds go to a private entity and then the county needing to borrow money or something to finish the tower project. He asked if it was possible to split the money like that.
It was stated at the Sept. 13 ARPA Committee meeting that the total cost of the project — including the tower and all the equipment that goes with it — is about $900,000, with ARPA covering $400,000 of that. The remaining funds will come from the county’s economic development income tax.
Groninger said Tuesday the recommendation from the ARPA Committee has to be voted on by the commissioners and council. “Everyone has to agree with what’s being approved … for that to move forward,” he said. “I know it is a significant reduction from what they were asking for. I’m not saying they were unhappy that they received $350,000, but they were probably disappointed they weren’t receiving more because it was a third of what they had originally requested.”
He said the Wagon Wheel still has to come up with over $700,000 for their renovation project.
Conley said he didn’t want to give the Wagon Wheel ARPA money and then have them come back and ask for “tax money.”
“I think that, historically, everybody knows Kosciusko County — we’ve never been in position that we had tax dollars that we’ve given out to private entities like this. I think the difference in this is ARPA funds were given to the county based on the population that is in our county, and that’s to really — they wanted it kind of boots on the ground of the local officials being able to see what the real needs were in the community to help identify those needs and get the funds in the right locations in our community,” Groninger said. “So, I think that even though there’s a fair amount of this money that the county has used for tower projects, 1300 North and other projects, it’s one of those things that we felt this was a project that kind of met that criteria.”
Conley asked if they could hold back $100,000 of the money if it’s needed for the tower project. Groninger said the ARPA Committee provided a recommendation and the final authority lies with the commissioners and council. He said it could be reduced, and added all the money has to be fully allocated by the end of 2024 and fully spent by the end of 2026.
County attorney Ed Ormsby said the commissioners do have the authority to deny or reduce the request recommended by the ARPA Committee.
Conley suggested they approve just the $250,000 for Wagon Wheel; $100,000 for the YMCA and $121,503 for Joe’s Kids.
Commissioner President Brad Jackson said while they’re all great causes, “I think we are way out of our lane, what we’re supposed to be (doing). We’re basically taking people’s tax dollars and donating it as we see fit. I’ve always had a problem with that, even with not-for-profits. They’re great, great causes, but that’s a private sector thing.”
Conley said that’s why he wanted to reduce Wagon Wheel’s amount. “That’s an entertainment venue more than anything else. Yes, there’s some edification there for kids. They have some kids programs they assist with, but that’s my recommendation,” he said.
He made a motion to approve $250,000 for Wagon Wheel and it passed 2-1, with Jackson voting against it. The money for Joe’s Kids was approved 3-0, with the $100,000 for the YMCA passing 2-0, with Groninger abstaining. Jackson also wanted to abstain from voting on the YMCA but his vote was needed and Ormsby told him he could vote on the request.