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How Rochester and the Finger Lakes are spending COVID rescue dollars

Updated: May 22, 2022

Brian Sharp Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Some $440 million in pandemic rescue funds are being spread across nine Finger Lakes counties and the cities of Rochester and Canandaigua.

And local governments thus far are opting to put significant dollars into overdue or long-desired public works projects, back-office needs and employee pay and bonuses.

The American Rescue Plan Act funding is intended to address the continued impacts of COVID-19 on the economy, public health, governments, individuals and businesses. Funds must be spent by the end of 2026.

The city of Rochester already has allocated (though not yet spent) $130 million of its $202 million award. Mayor Malik Evans is asking staff to review those decisions to ensure projects can "happen in a timely manner." If not, the dollars will be pulled back and appropriated to something else.

Investments thus far range from replacing lead pipes in the city's water system, on housing — including subsidizing new, for-sale houses for lower-income buyers, toward small business assistance and a guaranteed basic income trial program.

"You will see more coming from us around violence prevention," Evans told City Council during a briefing last month about use of the funds.

The city also is talking with Monroe County and the Rochester City School District about aligning investments to maximize impact. Monroe County has yet to outline a spending plan.

Many jurisdictions remain early in their decision process, having only hired consultants and accountants thus far to oversee spending and ensure compliance with federal regulations. Network or cyber security tops the initial expenditures in Livingston and Wayne counties, records show. Seneca County has focused on accessibility improvements to an historic county courthouse in Ovid, on sewer projects, and bridge and culvert upgrades along County Road 136, adjacent Lodi Point State Park in an area hit hard during the 2018 flooding. Yates has put the entirety of funds received thus far toward design and construction of a satellite public health space, officials said, explaining the need was evident as officials sought to provide mass vaccinations.

Elsewhere, Ontario County's largest commitment thus far is $874,000 in incentive pay for management staffers — awarding one-time $7,000 bonus to managers who otherwise did not receive a pay raise in 2021, records show. That award exceeded combined commitments to vaccine clinics, small business grant assistance, a study of disparate fire and ambulance coverage, pubic health payroll and administrative costs.

The county still has significant funding to allocate, though, with a total award of $21.3 million.

Canandaigua earmarked the entirety of its $1 million allotment, putting the money toward water and sewer projects and the bulk of the dollars ($740,000) toward lost revenue and a capital reserve fund. Said City Manager John Goodwin: As this is a one-time revenue, we plan to spend on one-time expenses."

Only those municipalities and counties with populations of more than 250,000, or that received more than $10 million in funding, have thus far been required to report spending to the U.S. Treasury.

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