Rental assistance funding plan rejected by Washington County panel

Committee endorses new Road Department pay scale

The Washington County Courthouse in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- An ordinance aimed at extending Washington County's emergency rental assistance program died for lack of a second Tuesday in the Quorum Court's Finance and Budget Committee.

Suki Highers, justice of the peace for District 11 in Fayetteville, sponsored the ordinance which would have appropriated $3.1 million from the county's $23 million in American Rescue Plan money for rental assistance. The American Rescue Plan provided money to state, tribal and local governments to help people in their communities who were affected by the covid-19 pandemic.

Brian Lester, county attorney, told the County Services Committee on April 4 that the county had been told at the end of 2021 that an additional $3 million would be available. That money has not come to the county, Lester said last week.

Highers said people who had applied and been approved for assistance were told on April 1 the program had been shut down and they would not receive the aid they expected for March and April.

"People were notified one month after their March rent was due and on the day April rent was due," Highers said while introducing the ordinance. "Hundreds of families in our districts are at risk of eviction. Fortunately, we do have the power and the resources to fix this problem."

Highers, who is not a member of the Finance Committee, said she was open to any amendments to her proposal and any alternative solutions. Shawndra Washington, justice of the peace for District 8 in Fayetteville, made a motion that the ordinance be approved and sent to the full Quorum Court, but no members of the committee offered a second to her motion and the ordinance died.

According to Lester, Washington County has distributed more than $13 million in emergency rental assistance funds to over 4,000 households. According to the county's website, Washington County was approved for another $3.4 million in rental assistance funds. That money has not been received by the county, and the county stopped accepting applications for assistance on March 25.

Lester said that if the additional ERA funding does come to the county applications that have been approved will be funded until the money runs out.

Several members of the public spoke about the need for rental assistance during the public comments period of the meeting.

Laura Ring said she is a teacher with one small rent house that she relies on as a source of income. She said her tenant is a single father with a 6-year-old son. She said the man lost his job during the pandemic and has struggled to meet the basic needs of his family.

"With one text from the county, he is instantly two months behind on his rent," Ring said.

Ring asked the justices of the peace to reconsider, asking them to put themselves in the positions of those in need.

"What am I going to say to a 6-year-old boy who needs a place to live," she said. "Please reconsider. When was the last time any of you gentlemen did not know where your children would sleep?"

Patsy Warren-Cook, a disabled Air Force veteran, said she also received a text on April 1 notifying her she would not be receiving the assistance she had been approved for. She asked the justices of the peace to at least discuss the ordinance.

"I don't understand how any of you could not second the motion on that ordinance," Warren-Cook said.

Highers said after the meeting that she will not stop trying to fund the program.

"I really don't intend to give up," Highers said. "I'll have to write a new ordinance with a different funding stream, but I don't intend to let this die."

The committee did endorse a new pay scale for the Road Department. The pay scale for Road Department employees has been a subject of discussion for several months, with a number of justices of the peace saying the pay offered by the county is not competitive with private businesses and the Road Department is unable to hire and retain employees.

Brian Lester, county attorney, and Jeff Crowder, the county's road superintendent, presented the plan to the Quorum Court's County Services Committee last week and to the Personnel Committee on Monday. The proposal would boost pay in the department and provide a process for advancement based on time with the county and on their knowledge and experience. Crowder said the department has six or seven vacancies now, with a program of bonuses and hiring incentives the Quorum Court approved last year having allowed a number of vacancies to be filled.

Lester said the plan would not be implemented before the end of this year, with work still needed through the county's personnel process and the budget process. Crowder said the new plan would increase the cost of pay for Road Department employees by about $700,000. The ordinance will be on the agenda for the April meeting of the Quorum Court.

Emergency rental assistance

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Millions of Americans face deep rental debt and fear evictions and the loss of basic housing security. Covid-19 has exacerbated an affordable housing crisis that predated the pandemic and that has deep disparities that threaten the strength of economic recovery.

To meet this need, the Emergency Rental Assistance program makes funding available to assist households that are unable to pay rent or utilities. Two separate programs have been established: ERA1 provides up to $25 billion under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, which was enacted on December 27, 2020, and ERA2 provides up to $21.55 billion under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which was enacted on March 11, 2021. The funds are provided directly to states, U.S. territories, local governments and (in the case of ERA1) Indian tribes. Grantees use the funds to provide assistance to eligible households through existing or newly created rental assistance programs.

Source: U.S. Department of the Treasury