The U.S. Treasury resumed operations of its Office of Recovery Programs Contact Center on Feb. 21, providing local governments with an important link to the federal agency as they seek to complY with the conditions governing the federal money.
The help desk fielded about 300 calls and about 2,000 emails a week before shuttering last October due to a lapse in funding. The contact center was created to help untangle compliance issues associated with the American Rescue Plan Act, and a non-functioning call center has been a pain point for municipalities trying to move forward with a wide variety of project types.
“Over 15,000 ARPA projects have invested $28 billion in everything from infrastructure upgrades that were delayed during COVID to creative affordable housing solutions,” said Mark Ritacco, chief government affairs officer, National Association of Counties. “The Recovery Programs Contact Center is an invaluable resource for ensuring counties pursue innovative solutions with a full understanding of what is permitted and the mechanics of the distribution of those funds.”
Funding to re-open the call centers came courtesy of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023, otherwise known as the omnibus bill that rolled across the congressional finish line last year. Since their inception, ARPA funds have been tapped for an array of different uses including treating social ills.
Some of the uses, including tax cuts have come under dispute which boosts the importance of having a help desk. “With new legislation late last year enabling greater flexibility in the use of ARPA funds, it’s valuable for Treasury to provide a line of communication,” said Ritacco.
Funding the call center includes the Treasury hiring new compliance analysts to man the phones. The federal side of the issue will also be served by the re-opening.
“There’s $350 billion that needs tracking,” said Emily Brock federal liaison for the Government Finance Officers Association. “They need controls on how these federal funds are spent. If there’s not enough people in the office of the recovery programs, then the story can’t be told, effective reporting can’t happen.”
Brock also has an eye on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s promise of oversight and who will be answering the questions.
“McCarthy was saying we’re going to do these hearings on how the stimulus funds were spent,” said Brock. “If you don’t have the amount of people that you need to testify, that also will be a bit of a challenge.”
The National League of Cities was among the stakeholder groups pushing for the re-opening.
“The process for filing an annual report, can be complicated and time-consuming to municipal staff unfamiliar with federal filings,” NLC said in a statement. “Many municipalities who received SLFRF (State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds) funds are small and rural governments who have few, if any, full-time staff to implement and manage SLFRF programs.”
Public finance leaders see the call center as a vital link to getting the most out of stimulus funding while staying within compliance.
“Fundamentally, the intergovernmental partnership depends on the ability to communicate between the federal government and the communities deploying funds on the ground,” said Ritacco. “Counties want to ensure appropriate uses of ARPA resources. We are making investments that benefit our communities and comply with the rules.”