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Mental health, drug treatment may get federal Rescue Plan money

Although Henderson County commissioners still have limited information on how they can spend $22 million in American Rescue Plan Act money, they are leaning toward investment in mental health treatment needs that the coronavirus pandemic has compounded.

During a budget workshop on Wednesday, Assistant County Manager Amy Brantley reported that the U.S. Treasury Department had issued preliminary guidelines on how local government bodies can spend the ARPA money. In the coming weeks, the county expects to receive $11 million, the first installment of a two-year allocation of $22 million designed to help communities recover from the business slowdown caused by the pandemic.

Among the ARPA-eligible recipients, Brantley said, are programs that provide mental health, substance abuse and behavorial health services. That means grants of $50,000 for the mental health at the jail, $200,000 to First Contact Ministry's substance abuse treatment and $100,000 for the new Hendersonville Connections Center could win the county's blessing.

"There is an opportunity certainly to partner with the municipalities (to fund the Connections Center) because obviously everyone is affected and if a successful effort was put forth everyone would benefit," County Manager Steve Wyatt said.

The treasury department is committed to aggressively auditing the spending, Brantley said, through what it called marshals. The county has until Dec. 31, 2024, to commit to spending; it could fund a capital project by that date that would be completed by Dec. 31, 2026.

"I have a feeling these funds are going to be looked at with a lot of scrutiny," she said.

"With the marshals, I'm concerned about that because they're going to be making this up as they go along," Wyatt said. "So we need to be very careful. If there are substantial things, I think we ought to ask them ahead of time — this is what we're thinking about doing."

County Attorney Russ Burrell cautioned that the guidance Treasury released this week was an "interim final rule" that is likely to be updated, possibly several times. "You're going to be throwing a dart at a dartboard that's moving," he said.

"I continue to be very frustrated," Chairman Bill Lapsley said. "I get phone calls and I'm sure my colleagues do from a lot of nonprofits. They have a project and they're wanting to know if they may be eligible and I can't answer. It's a bad situation. I  guess all I can say to everybody out there is be patient."

Commissioner Daniel Andreotta said the uncertainty is a product of "what happens when the federal government does you a favor."

"This money is not a windfall, it's not a gift," he said. "I made the comment in another setting that I wish it wasn't coming. It's the mortgaging of my grandchildren's future at a cost we don't know yet."