I’m a county legislator. I can’t find out what’s going on with ARPA funds

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I was a reporter for nearly two decades, and I’ve had to dust off my investigative journalism skills to find out basic information about how Monroe County is managing $144.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding it was awarded by the federal government.

Rachel Barnhart
(Photo: Kelly Kester Photography)

Municipalities around the country face a looming deadline on ARPA. We have to “obligate” all funds by the end of the year. It’s not enough to vote to set aside dollars for a specific purpose; we have to get them into contract.

As the Monroe County Legislature faces important decisions on ARPA, I can’t find out basic information about the program. For starters, how much money do we have left to obligate and how was that figure calculated?

According to a June 7 letter from the Bello administration to legislators, we have authorized spending $132.8 million of the $144.1 million in the past two years. That leaves about $11 million. But the administration also sent legislators an email on June 11 with a list of priorities and projects that totaled more than $50 million. 

The administration’s emailed list of potential items we could fund with ARPA dollars totals more than $50 million. A reasonable person would assume projects the Legislature previously approved are no longer viable. For example, in response to a question about a $4 million one-stop-shop birthing center, the Bello administration said it was not moving forward. But what else isn’t happening? Are there other projects that have leftover funds?

Vice President Mercedes Vazquez-Simmons and I submitted legislation to require regular reporting on ARPA funds, including providing the Legislature with all audits and compliance reviews. The bill would have required the reports to be posted on the Monroe County website. But President Yversha Roman blocked the bill from going to committee, saying it violates the powers assigned to the county executive. Have you ever heard of a Legislature that can’t require regular reports from the executive branch? (Of course, the Charter also says legislators can request legitimate information and investigate the executive branch.)

In my years working as a reporter and my time as a legislator, I’ve never seen a less transparent local government. 

There are consequences to operating in the dark. In the fall of 2022, the Bello administration pressured legislators to quickly approve $99 million in ARPA awards as one up-or-down package. We were subjected to an intense public relations campaign from nonprofit awardees. The result was the Community Resource Collaborative scandal, in which nearly a quarter-million dollars of ARPA funds went missing and a federal investigation ensued. 

As a result of that scandal, a majority of legislators demanded documents from the Bello administration under the threat of subpoena. But now, just a few months later, there is no will from my colleagues to act. That’s because leaders of both caucuses are in a back room making deals on how to spend the remaining ARPA funds. In effect, ARPA, which is meant for economic relief following the pandemic, is being treated like pork barrel spending. 

Where do we go from here? I’ve written letters to the administration, most recently requesting a list of every project and its status. I’ve created an “ARPA Tracker” on a Google spreadsheet that I made public, in which I try to solve the riddle of what’s going on with these funds.

This is not a functioning democracy or good government. The Legislature and the public have a right to know what’s going on with these funds, and they have a right to know answers to all questions today.

Rachel Barnhart, D-17th District, has been a Monroe County legislator since 2019.

The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

6 thoughts on “I’m a county legislator. I can’t find out what’s going on with ARPA funds

  1. Your said “That’s because leaders of both caucuses are in a back room making deals on how to spend the remaining ARPA funds. In effect, ARPA, which is meant for economic relief following the pandemic, is being treated like pork barrel spending.”
    Thanks for shining a glimmer of light on this Rochester pork barrel. It is a good poster child for the current problems of our nation. If we do not stop this, it will continue. I risked my life in the US Navy to preserve our democracy, not this sham with the “uniparty” members all grabbing for all they can get. How can we help you end the take over of our city? Federal events are creating an energy to act locally.

  2. Reading the sections cited in the rejection letter I’m not sure how asking for copies of audits and compliance reports infringes on the power of the executive branch. Section C3-2 grants the executive the responsibility for supervision and control of certain departments. Section C3(2)B lists responsibilities the executive has including but not limited to the custody and accounting for funds. That the legislative body asks for audits and reports does not infringe on either of these powers of the executive. Indeed, the legislature by charter has responsibilities directly related to finances, which this affects, and has the authority to deny certain positions in the executive branch over which the executive has control. The requests are clearly within the authority of the legislature and do not infringe on the powers of the executive.

  3. I was an enthusiastic Bello supporter, but I’ve been dismayed by developments over the past couple of years. His administration appears to be wholeheartedly recalcitrant, in particular in regards to any requests originating with Ms. Barnhart. This is not something we can chalk off to a personality conflict, since there are already hundreds of thousands of dollars missing. With the amount of poverty in Monroe County, it’s critical that every dollar be spent effectively, and the obfuscation happening at the executive level is extremely disappointing. I very much appreciate Ms. Barnhart’s efforts, especially as she is often personally attacked for it.

    If we can’t even know where the dollars have gone, how on Earth are we going to know if the spending has been effective?

    • I’m with you on your response. I won’t vote for Bello again. I’m disappointed in his unwillingness to be transparent and provide what Rachel Barnhart is requesting regarding the AARPA funds and I’m disappointed in his refusal to allocate funds toward a Public Utility feasibility study. RG&E Avangrid need to go.

  4. I am shocked by the lack of transparency of the Bello administration, which is part of the Democratic machine. I hope Rachel Barnhart will consider running soon for County Executive, what a breath of fresh air that would be.

  5. Keep looking, keep knocking on doors, don’t give up. It’s out there somewhere. Unfortunately you will find that some funds are missing. Then track down to culprit(s). You won’t retrieve the funds, but at least you can report as to whom spent the funds. Those responsible for the loss won’t be held accountable either. That’s the way this dysfunctional government works. Consider we are talking local politics. Can you imagine the mismanagement of the federal government?! Billions and then some.

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