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City of Williamsport seeks input on how to spend rescue plan funds

Saying these are “taxpayer dollars that are coming back to them,” Mayor Derek Slaughter and City Council held the first of what promised to be several work sessions on the best use of the American Rescue Plan’s $25.4 million granted to Williamsport.

In the 90-minute work session at Trade and Transit Centre II, Slaughter and Council agreed the big ticket items were on the radar such as the ongoing costly levee recertification process, which Slaughter said was “an unfunded federal mandate that arose after Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” and the controlling of flood situations, including the maintenance and operation of pump stations along the levee system.

Included in the discussion were topics ranging from establishing a Land Bank to secure unwanted properties, turning them over to be demolished or rehabilitated by private developers and put on the tax rolls, to planting trees along West Fourth Street ripped out during the reconstruction of the street.

Slaughter discussed fun projects that would require far less oversight and cost, such as splash pads and bike trails.

The city received the first half installment of the money in May and anticipate the second equal amount arriving toward the end of April or May.

“These are taxpayers’ dollars coming back to them,” Slaughter said. “The administration and council need to be extremely strategic and intentional about how we spend taxpayers’ money,” he said.

The funds are to be allocated by 2024 and spent in 2026, according to the U.S. Treasury guidelines.

In the work session, Adam Winder, acting general manager of streets and parks department, said the city needs to keep in mind all or some of the nine pump stations in the city that are used as part of flood control, pressure relief systems that need to be operational and maintained and that are shared in some locations with the Williamsport Municipal Water and Sanitary Authority for its combined sanitary discharge and stormwater needs.

The ongoing levee recertification — which is an unfunded federal mandate that arose after Hurricane Katrina — remains on the city’s radar, Slaughter said.

The project includes the existing relief well replacement, crosspipe installation and I wall work on Lycoming Creek side. City and Lycoming County continue to seek grants for these levee reconstruction projects.

“We know what those funds are going to be,” Councilwoman Liz Miele said after Slaughter announced the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ study requirement as part of the certification.

The study is estimated to cost $2 million to $3 million must be done as part of the certification process, Slaughter said. Keller Partners, a Washington, D.C. consulting firm, is seeking $2.5 million for the study in a grant.

Councilman Adam Yoder, who sits on finance committee, was clear about not wanting to see use of the funds if the city would be successful getting state or federal grants.

Slaughter agreed with that premise.

Discussion gravitated toward the concept of establishing a land bank to acquire condemned or code deficient damaged properties, demolish them and have a private developer rebuild them to get them back on the tax rolls.

Councilwoman Bonnie Katz had Joseph Pawlak explain how the city levee account is at between $500,000 and $750,000, so grant opportunities were needed.

Katz said she believed it was necessary to know what was expended thus far on the levee, a project that began in 2012, before using any of the federal rescue plan funding.

The city is eyeing investing in the Williamsport Redevelopment Authority, which has dwindling funds in its account, as it looks toward blight remediation along with the blighted property review committee.

Improving the look and value of neighborhoods was another area for investing in, with possible projects such as replanting of trees along West Fourth Street in Newberry, a emotionally wrenching subject when the state Department of Transportation and work crews rebuilt and resurfaced the street and removed the shade trees.

Slaughter said possible use of money would be for improving recreation facilities and adding more fun places, such as splash pads.

He could see the continuing efforts to expand the bathhouse for use inside by summer campers and for organizations.

“We can spread the love to all our parks,” he said, citing investments in Youngs Woods Park, adding opportunity for soccer or other fields at open green space at Newberry Park, continued accessibility upgrades and improvement at Lose Park and Brandon Parks and making its three baseball fields playable again with Williamsport Area Little League and other stakeholders.

“We want to see use of these funds for a lot of good items that will be transformation in our community,” he said.

Future discussions may include those impacting the local economy such as what can happen from arts and culture, including culture trails which are successful in nearby cities.

“We can have discuss a lot of ideas,” Council President Randall J. Allison said.

A community survey is on the city Website asking for public input.

As the budget season nears, Slaughter added: “We would love to return it in the form of a tax cut or rebate, but there are federal restrictions and guidance on how it can be spent.”

“It needs to be spent wisely because this amount of money can be transformational, so the funds must be used on priorities for the boldest possible impact,” he said.

“My thought is that we do not rush this,” Slaughter said. “We can take the time and have a conversation with the administration, council and clearly any stakeholders and citizens in the community to make sure it is not nickel and dimed away.”

The money was distributed as part of a plan by U.S. President Joe Biden to help the city to bounce back from negative financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The city released a public survey seeking feedback. It can be accessed online at surveymonkey.com/r/WMSPTARPWEB

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