Downtown Fairbanks

Few cars were spotted crossing the Cushman Street bridge in downtown Fairbanks on Sunday, March 29, 2020. Laura Stickells/News-Miner

More than $9 million in federal Covid-19 relief money was deposited into a Fairbanks North Star Borough account last Thursday, the same day leaders held a special meeting to discuss how to spend it. 

Ideas offered at the July 15 special meeting of the assembly finance committee include water and sewer improvements, grants to social services agencies, a study of Internet availability in the borough, financial assistance to encourage more people to get vaccinated, grants to tourism and social service agencies, trails improvements and more.

Leah Berman Williams, assembly finance committee chairwoman, is working on a draft list of projects to be discussed and prioritized at another special finance committee meeting on Aug. 19. The goal is to prepare an appropriating ordinance for assembly debate and a vote. Residents are encouraged to nominate projects.

“We have a bunch of money that the borough has been allocated through the American Rescue Plan Act,” Williams said at the start of the meeting. “The idea of this meeting is to solicit input from the public and the borough administration as well as input from the finance committee on how we think we should prioritize spending these ARPA funds.”

A few borough residents testified and called for improvements to parks and recreation such as a new pickle ball court, a new groomer at the Birch Hill Recreation Area and a new lighted cross country ski trail connecting Birch Hill to trails across the Steese Expressway.

A representative from the Interior Gas Utility called for spending Covid-19 relief money on assisting residents with converting oil-fired boilers to natural gas.

The $9.4 million is the first of two installments from the latest Covid-19 relief package approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden. The borough is anticipating a second $9.4 million payment in a year.

All of the money from the American Rescue Plan Act must be appropriated by the end of 2024 with work completed and funds spent by the end of 2026, according to the borough attorney.

The money can be used to provide premium pay to essential workers, make investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure, and respond to the economic impacts of Covid-19, under federal rules. Small businesses, nonprofits and industries dependent on tourism could all receive a portion of the funds, which cannot be used to reduce taxes or shore up pension funds.

Borough Mayor Bryce Ward identified his priorities to include spending $4.5 million to connect the Pearl Creek Elementary School to the sewer and water system; $1 million to replace the community septic system for the Ballaine Lake Sewer and Water Service Area; $700,000 to improve online security at the borough; $350,000 to be provided to Explore Fairbanks; $500,000 to fund a program offering grants to social service organizations; and $3 million to study Internet speed and availability in the borough.

“I realize that is a very large amount,” Ward said of the broadband study. That’s because it would involve collecting information by going door-to-door, he said.

The mayor also would like to spend up to $20,000 on customer service training for borough staff and up to $10,000 on a borough employee appreciation activity.

Williams’ No. 1 priority would be improving broadband in the borough, she said. She also called for sewer and water improvements at Pioneer Park.

“Pioneer Park is a real asset to our community but it could be so much better,” she said.

The assemblywoman would like to spend relief money on grants for the hospitality industry.

“We promised Explore Fairbanks that we would make them whole,” Williams said.

She added that the Borough Assembly needs an alternate meeting site.

“Our experience during Covid has made it clear that we need extra spaces to be able to do our borough work,” she said.

The assemblywoman additionally wants to see the borough improve the municipal online bill payment system.

Assemblyman Jimi Cash said he would like to use some of the money to help small businesses recruit workers.

“It’s just across the board. Everybody is having a hard time getting employees,” he said.

Mindy O’Neall, presiding officer of the assembly, called for using Covid-19 relief money to help solve the borough’s housing crunch and to improve recruitment to fill open positions at the borough.

Assemblywoman Tammie Wilson also wants to use some of the money to alleviate the borough’s housing shortage.

Assemblywoman Marna Sanford favors spending Covid relief money on sewer and water improvements and expanding access to broadband.

Assemblywoman Liz Lyke said she wants to focus on encouraging people to get the Covid-19 vaccine and on helping vulnerable residents.

“One thing I don’t want to do with this money is grow government,” said Assemblyman Frank Tomaszewski. “We don’t want to initiate programs and start things that are going to adversely affect our tax base in years to come.”

Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7545. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMborough.