Regulations may block use of ARPA funds on courthouse annex

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Osage County officials briefly acknowledged during an Aug. 2 meeting that information they had received from state officials indicated it is doubtful that federal American Rescue Plan Act money can be used to help finance the construction of a new courthouse annex.

“It’s pretty clear we cannot,” District 1 Commissioner Randall Jones said, commenting on the guidance that commissioners from throughout Oklahoma received from the office of the state Auditor and Inspector during the summer conference of the Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma (ACCO).

County Treasurer Sally Hulse also commented to the same general effect, reflecting on what she learned in a meeting of county treasurers.

The Auditor and Inspector’s office distributed to commissioners a 47-page handout, containing specific guidance on expense categories for which ARPA funds can be spent, categories for which the funds can be spent with some restrictions, and categories for which spending would be unacceptable.

“Investments in infrastructure” was a category listed in the handout as “allowed with restrictions.” Osage County District Attorney Mike Fisher has expressed an interest in possibly using ARPA funds to help finance the construction of a courthouse annex in Pawhuska.

“Eligible infrastructure uses of the Fiscal Recovery Funds fall into three broad categories of water, sewer and broadband,” the state Auditor and Inspector’s handout says. “While infrastructure projects other than water, sewer, and broadband are permissible under certain circumstances … counties should carefully consider whether such costs are in compliance with Fiscal Recovery Fund requirements and whether such compliance and considerations can be adequately documented.

“For example, an expansion or maintenance of County facilities such as the courthouse, jail or district barns should be necessary to address needs directly related to the COVID-19 public health emergency, unless sufficient revenue loss recoupment can cover the cost of the project,” the handout continues.

Osage County’s need for upgraded courthouse space goes back years beyond the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. The county courthouse is more than a century old and discussions about its future have been ongoing from time to time for more than a decade. The need has been carefully studied, but public support for a courthouse project referendum has been problematic.

Fisher’s office has indicated it will offer the county commissioners some contractor presentations on Aug. 16 about a potential courthouse annex construction project.

In a follow-up conversation last week with the Journal-Capital, Jones voiced concern about making additional comments at that juncture regarding the regulatory permissibility of using ARPA money for an annex project. He did clarify that county officials are talking about a possible two-story annex building with a small basement area. Each of the two floors would be some 13,000 square feet. The new building would be erected where the county records storage building now stands, and would be connected with the courthouse by what Jones described as a breezeway or hallway.

He characterized the need at this point for improved courthouse space as “a pretty great need.”

Hulse said she and members of her staff had talked about other potential uses of Osage County’s ARPA money – for instance on school nurses to help local educational institutions respond adequately to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

Osage County’s portion of the ARPA funding is about $9.1 million.