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Arkansas legislative panel OKs $280M for water projects

American Rescue funds also cleared for Camden hospital by Michael R. Wickline | September 17, 2022 at 8:56 a.m.
Rep. Michelle Gray (R-Melbourne) makes a motion during the Arkansas Legislative Council meeting Friday at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)


The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday granted the Arkansas Department of Agriculture's request for spending authority to use $280 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for water, wastewater and irrigation projects in Arkansas.

The council also voted to authorize the state Department of Human Services to transfer $6.07 million in American Rescue Plan funds to Ouachita County Medical Center in Camden with the aim of helping the hospital avoid closure soon.

"We are bleeding red in Camden, Arkansas," said Peggy Abbott, president and chief executive officer of Ouachita County Medical Center.

"We have not quite five days' cash on hand."

The council voted to send the North Arkansas Regional Medical Center's request for $10 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to its Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee. Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, said she doesn't favor providing $10 million in American Rescue Plan funds to North Arkansas Regional Medical Center because she doesn't feel like closure is imminent for the hospital.

The council's actions came after some lawmakers aired their frustrations and disagreements about the state's use of federal American Rescue funds.

"We have communities drinking brown water," said state Rep. Fran Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, in making a pitch for authorizing the use of $280 million in American Rescue Plan funds for water, wastewater and irrigation projects.

She said no state lawmaker thinks it's OK for a community to have brown drinking water.

The council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee recommended on Tuesday that the Legislative Council grant spending authority for the Department of Agriculture to use $280 million in American Rescue Plan funds for water, wastewater and irrigation projects; for the Department of Human Services to use $5 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to support the training and certification of teams employed by behavioral health agencies in evidence-based models; and for Black River Technical College to use $4.6 million of the federal funds to construct short-term training and housing facilities.

But the Legislative Council on Friday balked at approving all of the committee's recommendations and voted to send the Department of Human Services' request for $5 million and Black River Technical College's request for $4.6 million back to the council's Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Committee.

The committee voted Tuesday to delay action on several state government requests collectively seeking about $105 million in spending authority to use federal American Rescue Plan funds. These requests include the state Department of Human Service's requests for $60 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to assist hospitals in immediate jeopardy of closure and $10 million in federal funds and $5 million in state restricted reserve funds for services to benefit rural hospitals through the Arkansas Rural Health Partnership, as well as several requests by colleges and Women and Children First for about $35 million in federal funds for building projects.

Among other things, the Legislative Council on Friday declined to approve a motion to authorize the use of $5 million in American Rescue Plan funds for Northwest Technical Institute Education Foundation to help in the construction of an allied health facility on the institute's campus in Springdale, and the use of $3.2 million in these federal funds for Arkansas Tech University to remodel Morton Hall to create space for the growth of nursing programs.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said Tuesday he wants each hospital seeking federal American Rescue Plan funds to avoid closure to explain to state lawmakers how much federal money the hospital needs, why the hospital needs the money, and how the federal money is going to help the hospital be sustainable in the long run.

That led Ouachita County Medical Center to request that the Legislative Council on Friday authorize the use of $6.07 million in American Rescue Plan funds for the hospital in Camden and North Arkansas Regional Medical Center to request that the council authorize $10 million in American Rescue Plan funds for the hospital in Harrison.

Increased costs and labor shortages have resulted in reduced revenue for the hospitals, and that's meant several hospitals across the state, particularly those that serve rural populations, are at immediate risk of closure, the Department of Human Services said in its request for $60 million in American Rescue Plan funds.

Hospitals received advanced Medicare payments early during the covid-19 pandemic and are receiving lower Medicare reimbursements in order to pay back that money to the federal government, said Mark White, chief of staff at the Department of Human Services.

The state Department of Human Services also is working with the Arkansas Hospital Association to undergo a rate review for Arkansas' inpatient and outpatient hospital rates, as well as examine policies to help address the strains placed on hospitals through the pandemic.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said many hospitals are in a financial bind and he hopes they will find ways out of their financial binds.

In May 2021, Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed the state's American Rescue Plan steering committee -- comprising nine Hutchinson administration officials and six state lawmakers -- to recommend the best uses of $1.57 billion in American Rescue Plan state fiscal recovery funds and $158 million in American Rescue Plan capital project funds.

In March 2021, President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act that is designed to help the United States recover from the economic and health effects of the covid-19 pandemic.

The state Department of Agriculture's request for $280 million in American Rescue funds includes $135 million for grants for drinking water-related projects; $135 million for grants for wastewater treatment and collection and stormwater-related projects; $5 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for a White River Irrigation District project to construct five county road crossings over a 10-mile canal segment that is under construction as phase 1 of the Grand Prairie project; and $5 million for a Bayou Meto Water Management District project to construct 10 pumping stations for water delivery.

State Department of Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward told state lawmakers on Tuesday the department wants to administer $135 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to distribute grants for drinking-water-related projects and $135 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to distribute grants for wastewater treatment and collection and stormwater-related projects through its Natural Resources Division.

Ward said the Department of Agriculture plans to allow for about 50 days for grant applications to be submitted, and to have the applications reviewed and scored by staff before the Natural Resources Commission makes decisions on which projects to fund.


  photo  Peggy Abbott, president of Ouachita County Medical Center, and Joe Michael Givens, corporate compliance officer for OCMC, discuss their importance to the Camden community during the Arkansas Legislative Council meeting Friday at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)
 
 


Print Headline: $280M OK’d for water projects

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