By Justin Jaech
The Times 

Columbia County Commissioners discuss ARPA funds, HVAC system


November 18, 2021

DAYTON—American Rescue Plan Act funds, and how to spend them, have been on the Columbia County Commissioners’ minds for months.

Earlier this year, the Port of Columbia approached the commissioners about the funds, requesting a financial contribution for the ongoing broadband infrastructure project, which would provide reliable, high-speed internet for Columbia County businesses and residents who fall within the project’s service area. The perimeter was recently extended to areas surrounding Dayton, including Huntsville. Commissioners Rundell and Hall have expressed interest in supporting the project.

At the November 15 meeting, Commissioners Amerein, Hall, and Rundell discussed the use of ARPA funds to supplement the Columbia County Courthouse HVAC project.

The county was awarded an approximately $110,000 grant from the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP). The DAHP strives to preserve the original appearance of historic courthouses, like the one in Columbia County.

“Every dollar that we receive from them is to make it look like it used to,” said Dave Finney, Courthouse Maintenance Supervisor. “We applied for funds for our HVAC, which is completely unseen, from the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation. Originally, we were going to try and get rid of the cooling tower and go geothermal. They liked that because it makes things look the way they used to work.”

Finney explained that the geothermal systems were too expensive for the scope of funds, and he had requested the grant contract be amended to reflect plans to replace the cooling tower. Finney said that DAHP had agreed to the amendment, with a caveat that the project could not alter the appearance of the building.

Finney explained this caveat restricts the project from boring holes into the side of the building for fresh air intake. He added that they did not want to put holes in the building, but that did create a ventilation issue for the project.

According to Finney, with the ARPA funds, they would try and grandfather the HVAC project to fit DAHP requirements.

He then went on to explain that the ARPA funds could be used to improve ventilation. The HVAC plan, as it was initially developed, did not provide any ventilation improvements. The other use available, according to Finney, is to provide essential government operations related to pandemic needs.

“The two cases we can make for using ARPA funds for our HVAC project are either increasing ventilation which, traditionally, we cannot do,” Finney said. “Or we could make a case that this is our main office building. If we don’t have an HVAC system because it’s dying, we can’t perform the functions of pandemic-related needs.”

Finney also presented the commissioners with information regarding Senate Bill 3011, which eases the restrictions regarding how ARPA funds could be spent.

The summary of SB3011 reads: Allows states, tribes, territories, and localities to use certain COVID-19 relief funds for new categories of spending, including for natural disasters and infrastructure projects. It also makes changes to expenditure deadlines and other aspects of this funding. Specifically, recipients may use funds for emergency relief from natural disasters and associated negative economic impacts of natural disasters. In addition, recipients may use a portion of their COVID-19 relief funds for designated infrastructure projects, such as nationally significant freight and highway projects. Furthermore, the bill allows recipients to expend COVID-19 relief funds on these types of infrastructure projects until September 30, 2026. Under current law, recipients must expend the funds by December 31, 2024. Other changes in the bill include (1) modifying eligibility and allocation requirements for funding set aside for counties and Indian tribes that are near public lands, (2) allowing Indian tribes an additional year to expend their COVID-19 relief funds, and (3) establishing a process for government entities to decline COVID-19 relief funds and requiring any declined funds to be used to reduce the federal deficit.

The bill passesd the Senate and has moved to the House. He believes the bill would ease ARPA fund restrictions, and Finney believes it would allow these funds to be used for the HVAC project with ease. Finley said he has reached out to Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers’s office, on behalf of Columbia County Maintenance, to show support for the bill. Commissioner Rundell will also be sending a letter to McMorris-Rodgers’s office.

Finney said that he also contacted the Department of Treasury, explaining the project, why it will help ventilation and operational needs, and requesting approval from the Department. He was told that the Department of Treasury will not approve any projects but that it was on the County (or respective entity) to read, interpret, and understand the rules of the ARPA funds, so that they will pass a future audit through the state, which is anticipated in 2022.

“If we move forward with our HVAC design as it is right now, it is a possibility that they (the state) could come back and say, ‘this is a little bit father out of, a little bit out of bounds of our contingency,” Finney said. “If that were the case, we would have to pay that money back. However, taking that route, right now, we would have to go to our reserves anyway to pay for that project. Worst case scenario, it buys us time, and it’s an interest-free loan.”

“Unless there are penalties and fees involved,” Commissioner Hall added.

Finney said there was a third option, by purchasing air-scrubbing technology from Synexis. He explained that their system moves air through the unit, where it undergoes chemical changes and becomes dry hydrogen peroxide. The altered air is then pushed out and circulates through the air, attacking mold, fungus, odors, and SARS-COV 2, Influenza, and other contagious viruses. He said that the amount of dry hydrogen produced and circulated with the Synexis system is 1,000 times less than the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)’s lowest threshold deemed safe for workplace air.

Finney said he is still researching the system. A significant number of registers are needed for the proposed space, adding roughly $120,000 to project costs. Maintenance for each unit would require a $300 cartridge replacement at least once a year. This would cost $12,000 per year for the 40 units needed for the courthouse. He suggested that ARPA funds could be used to pre-purchase cartridges.

He explained that the units only work if the fans within the current system are turned on. Apollo Mechanical contracted to do the county’s cost estimate, came up with a base cost of $379,000 for the HVAC system, not including the Synexis system. He said with taxes and permits, electricians, and other necessary parts of the project figured in; the cost rises to roughly $460,000.

“If this were me making this decision all on my own… if Senate Bill 3011 had already passed, I would probably not put in the air scrubbers,” Finney said. “Not because they aren’t worthwhile or wonderful, but because they aren’t required, and we (the county) are poor.”

The HVAC project will need to be finished by June 30. Finney said that he would go back to his architecture and engineering division and try to incorporate the air scrubbers into the design so that the project complies with the DAHP ARPA requirements.

Commissioner Hall asked about the efficacy of the scrubbers, which Finley said that he is looking into. He said hospitals have started using them, and some universities are installing the scrubbers in dorm rooms and other shared spaces.

The commissioners did not make any decisions regarding the use of the ARPA funds.


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