Visit the MSA COVID-19 Relief Funding Hub for the latest updates about relief funding initiatives in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The COVID-19 pandemic brings new challenges each day across the country for municipal government leaders, utilities, and the constituents they serve. While we are seeing hopeful signs, we don’t yet know how long the challenges will last—and how things will look on “the other side.” Much of the recovery will be a function of federal, state, local and even individual efforts and programs. Yet, there are positive steps Wisconsin municipalities can be taking right now to prepare.
Take an honest assessment of your community needs.
If you feel like you’re in constant “response” mode, you’re not alone. You may have placed your strategic blueprint on hold as you focus on near-term cash and resource management. Ongoing actions being taken by various levels of government are affecting decisions and resource availability. It’s also difficult to reconcile projects that may require rate increases, like a water main project relying on residents’ and business owners’ ability to pay.
Yet, now is the time to take stock: what did you plan to do this year, and what have you already completed? What are the priority projects now, and are they dependent on other factors? What is preventing you from operating most effectively? Take a look at the near-term answers to these questions, as well as the long-term opportunities.
This is the optimal time to review the emerging needs of your community, as well as your planning documents such as: an existing capital improvement plan (CIP); comprehensive, strategic, or master plans; budget projections, TID project plans and proformas; and any other resources available to keep your community running. Review compliance schedules. Leverage your trusted community partners to perform a candid, realistic evaluation of your 2020 goals. Determine what you can delegate and what needs to be performed in-house—and by whom.
If you don’t have a CIP, work with community leaders to develop an interim document guiding priorities. Ensure communication is flowing between any and all municipal and utility departments so that key projects are identified and listed, even if a funding source is not yet identified or available. Involve your community stakeholders in both the needs and resource discussions.
A trusted consultant can help develop this document and provide regional perspective, particularly as it pertains to bundling funding sources to develop more “shovel-ready” projects.
Focus on “shovel-ready” projects.
While the COVID-19 crisis is not directly analogous to the 2008 recession and the resulting American Recovery and Reinvestment Action of 2009 (ARRA), past experience dictates that “shovel-ready” projects — projects where planning, engineering and permitting had been done in advance — receive priority.
Because the goal of emergency funding programs is to roll out that funding effectively and quickly, the focus is often placed on currently identified needs, distributed through existing programs and networks. To have a seat at the table, you typically need to be ‘ready’ for construction as soon as the funding is available.
For example, when the ARRA program was rolled out in response to the 2008 economic downturn, one of the clear channels for the funding came through the DNR Clean Water Fund and Safe Drinking Water Fund programs. MSA helped secure $4.7 million in grants and over $28 million in low-interest loans that year to help municipalities fund their critical infrastructure needs at a time when municipal resources were stretched thin. Projects that were on the existing priority list from the previous year were suddenly in line for funds at levels previously unavailable, but the time frame to act was short. MSA staff went over and above to help communities prepare facility plans, plans and specs, receive variances, and prepare applications to quickly be able to access those programs and address those needs. Likewise, funds directed through the CDBG program and USDA-RD program were secured for critical community projects.
More recently, we have seen this same pattern of funding and corresponding blend of partnership, effort and results for our communities with the rollout a variety of funds: lead service line grants through the SDWLP program (several years ago and starting again this year), phosphorus grants for wastewater plants through the CWF program, the CDBG-CLOSE program, Multimodal Local Supplement (MLS) funding (awarded in March 2020), and more.
Continue to pursue new and existing funding programs.
Be proactive in determining your resources and funding options based on known, funded grant and low-interest loan programs as well as those that are opening up. Identify critical projects that your community can’t afford to delay. A trusted consultant can help you identify the most strategic way to phase your projects to capture the most funding dollars and can help you stay informed as opportunities develop.
For example, with the CDBG-CLOSE program officially in effect since last year, Wisconsin communities need to close out their CDBG-RLF (revolving business loan) funds in some fashion. However, they also have the opportunity to apply to reinvest those funds in new CDBG-eligible projects by January 31, 2021. Consider how you can use your CLOSE funds to pay for planning and funding projects that will further position you for the next fund, like the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, utility projects or other community needs.
COVID-19 funding is already coming through in various forms, with more anticipated: Wisconsin Act 185 provides for relief for property tax deadlines which may impact cash flow for communities, but the act also eases municipal requirements for accessing the state trust fund to keep things working. Housing programs are receiving additional funds. Grant programs such as those to help with firefighter and emergency personnel equipment needs have received more funding. Infrastructure programs are in the works.
Position your municipality to recoup COVID-19 expenses and losses.
Document, document, document! Establish special accounting line items that can be used to segregate everything COVID-related from the normal municipal costs, and notate the items well (even on time slips). Things to consider including: personnel hours to clean and disinfect, or other maintenance needs caused by the pandemic or distancing; supplies like personal protective gear and materials/supplies needed to provide a safe environment; extra costs related to in-person or absentee voting or managing other community needs; extra work-from-home costs (hardware, software, internet, time); outside services required due to the pandemic; project cost increases due to material availability, delays, or working requirements—and more.
Leverage your networks.
Your residents and businesses are looking to you to keep community operations humming. No matter your staff size, keeping up with the daily (and sometimes hourly) changes can be daunting or just plain overwhelming. Fortunately, we’re all in this together, working toward a common goal: creating and maintaining strong communities. Maintain open lines of communication with your networks and build a group of trusted advisors. Recognize and acknowledge the challenges you’re encountering as well as the successes you’ve realized. Ideas and solutions often come from unexpected avenues.
How we help.
The MSA team is ready and able to provide any assistance you may need along the way. Helping communities navigate everything from operational challenges, to strategic capital planning to getting projects built — and finding the funds to make plans a reality — is what we do, and what we enjoy.